Leh in Ladakh, India; July 22-26, 2013

Last year it was touch and go whether Tim and Emily's complicated schedules would permit our usual summer family adventure. In the end Emily missed the first half of our 2012 Iceland trip, but we still enjoyed the second half all together. Once again this year, as we watched the summer commitments mount up, we wondered if we could pull it off. But everything fell into place: We had 3½ weeks starting the day after Tim's last cycling race, and finishing the day before Emily's high school resumes. That was just enough time for a trek in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas, an area we've had on our list for a while.

Then came The Call. Just a few weeks ago -- long after our India plans were in place -- Tim received an invitation to join the USA junior national cycling team for a series of races in Europe, from mid-July to mid-August. That's not an opportunity any cyclist would squander, although Tim does seem genuinely disappointed that he's missing our Himalayan expedition. We miss him too, especially Emily who, for the first time on a major trip, is lacking in (her words) "teenage companionship."

Tim set off for Europe on July 15. He spent a week in the south of France with his training partner Adrien and his (french) family. By all accounts they had a fantastic time. As the rest of us flew to India, Tim moved on to Sittard, The Netherlands, where he's spending a month living at USA Cycling's new training center there, traveling to a variety of races in Belgium, The Netherlands, and France.

The centerpiece of our India trip is a 13-day trek through the popular Markha Valley. If all goes extremely well, we'll cap off the trek by reaching the summit of Stok Kangri, at 20,187' the highest peak in the region. It's a non-technical peak, although crampons & ice axe are needed for a glacier crossing, and roping up for safety is relatively common. Weather can be iffy and it's almost 1000' higher than we've been before (the 19,350' summit of Kilimanjaro), so we won't be disappointed if it doesn't work out. By all reports, the Markha Valley trek will surely stand on its own. An itinerary similar to ours can be seen here, although we're not using that particular agency for our trip. We booked through Himalayan High Treks, who organized a very successful Ladakh trek for a friend of ours a few years ago.

The capital of Ladakh and gateway town to this part of the Himalayas is Leh (photo 1, from a palace above town). Despite the distance and remoteness, we reached Leh fairly efficiently, traveling from San Francisco to Seoul to New Delhi on Asiana Airlines, then after a 1:00am to 5:00am layover in the Delhi airport, taking India's Jet Airways for the one-hour flight to Leh. Leh sits at a whopping 11,562', and everyone feels the altitude on arrival. We're spending three days acclimatizing in Leh before beginning our trek, which quickly takes us a fair bit higher.

Ladakh is known as "Little Tibet," and we could see why as soon as we arrived. Admittedly we haven't been to Tibet, but the people and culture in Leh feel at least as much like Mongolia (where we have been) as like other parts of India. The town is struggling a bit to meet rapidly increasing tourist demands. For example, the electricity comes and goes, so each establishment owns a generator to match its needs: our guesthouse has one the size of a truck, while every roadside stand has a lawnmower-sized model. Internet also came and went -- mostly went -- a bit frustrating as we tried to grab our last bits of communication with Tim before heading on the trek. Although Leh and points south (where we're trekking) are considered safe, we're not all that far from the disputed border regions with China and Pakistan, so there's significant military presence in Leh, which apparently compliments tourism to boost the economy. Overall we enjoyed the town (photos 2 and 3), with its developing-country hectic-exotic charm, yet not overwhelming.

We've dealt with 12-hour time changes before (11½ to be exact), and we've dealt with sudden arrivals at high altitude, but never before both at once, and they do compound. We initially kept our activities on the relatively sedate side. In addition to walking around the town and getting ready for the trek, we toured a number of monasteries and palaces in the region with a monk as our guide (photos 4-6). On the last day we picked up the pace and indulged in one of Leh's signature adventures: driving to sky-high Khardung La, then descending back to Leh by mountain bike.
Khardung La is widely advertised as the highest motorable road in the world, with India's travel website (not to mention all the T-shirts in town) claiming 18,379'. Like the nearby borders, apparently the designation is disputed, with Wikipedia claiming a mere 17,582'. Our GPS read 17,664'. Regardless of the true altitude or world record, the pass itself was quite interesting, with masses of prayer flags (photo 7) and a view into Pakistan's Karakoram range (photo 8). The bike ride down was nothing less than epic; see photos 9-11.

Next: There won't be any travelogs during the trek, so look for the next installment in about two weeks. After the trek we'll fly from Leh back to Delhi where we'll make a quick four-day circuit of the "Golden Triangle" before heading home. It will be beastly hot and it's the monsoon season, but we figured since we'd be in the neighborhood we shouldn't miss the chance to visit Agra and the Taj Mahal, the famous forts and palaces of Jaipur, and Delhi itself.

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