Kevin Swains
Travel Website
This is Kev's Travel Blog



The Zanskar valley has been on my mind for a while. Until 1981 there was no road access to Padum and the end of the valley and it took over a weeks trek to reach there. Since then things have changed. There are now busses, tourist taxis and 4wd's daily but it's still supposed to be an amazing journey impressing even the best of travellers!
I set off from Kargil, stocking up with goodies on the way. There's only one way in and one way out so everybody knows where I'm going but they ask me all the same as they can't believe anyone can do it by bike. I explain where I've been and they seem happy enough?
I push on. I leave the good tarmac and the people of Kargil behind and hit the Zanskar valley. I pass through a few pleasent villages. I get asked for pens a few times but it's no problem. As I get deaper into the valley I get more and more pen requests and it becomes rather annoying. Even the adults ask for them! I contemplate turning around but decide to push on thinking the villages will soon dissapear and the valley become barren.....wrong!
The more I go down the valley the worse things become. I cycled Egypt many years ago and the kids there were bad but the kids of Zanskar made the Egyptians look like beaituful little angels. It was a far cry from the friedly Buddist villages and I longed to see the beautiful Medusa girl again.
I was mentally and physically tired. I'd done 85km, over half uphill into a growing headwind. I approached the town of
Sanku where I was planning to stay the night. The road was busy with people and I was pestered to death for pens. I was 100% pissed off. I'd tried everything I could to get rid of them. I tell them I have no pen, they want a chocolate. I tell them I have no chocolate, they ask me for one dollar! I can't win....


Panikar View
View from Panikar in the Zanskar valley.

I hit the passport checkpoint. There's about 7 locals stood around the sentry post and they shake my hand. One of them ask me if I'm single and I balls up and say yes. I forget that I'm now in the land of the oppressed Muslims!

Immediately one young guy takes my hand tightly with both of his and squeezes it while staring into my eyes. The others start to perv me up and down. It's totally bizzare. Forget the Mujahadeen bandits in the hills, it's these Muslim bottom bandits that'll give me the most grief!
I've had this happen several times while travelling Muslim areas. The guys can't get any off the chics so they sleep with each other. BUT....they don't class it as being gay. There are absolutely no gays in any Muslim country in the world. Well that's what they keep telling's the old 'I've got a sausage up my bottom but I'm not gay' routine!
Anyway....I find the only guesthouse is full and push on another 26km.
The pen thing incredibly gets worse. I slowly arrive at one village, it's abot 300m long. An adult sees me struggling up the hill and shouts to the rest of the vilage that I'm coming. The jungle telegraph works quickly and soon I can't believe what I'm seeing. All the village is slowly filling the street. It's like the Tour De France in the mountains when everyone slowly crowds into the centre of the road and open as the peloton passes. It really is hell. I get about 500 requests for pens from everybody. I'm tired, totally pissed off and want to kill everyone. I can't believe the anger inside me. I even tell the kids to 'get fucked'!
I pass the village passing through peaceful fields....then I hear shouts of 'one pen' from children I can hardly see they're that far away. The simply don't stop shouting!
I hear murmurs in the nearby long grass. Suddenly I can see children racing as fast as they can through the fields trying to catch me while constantly chanting 'one pen, one pen'.
I remember one young child chasing me up hill doing the 'one pen' chant. He was running faster than Seb Coe with
Delhi belly. He wasn't breathing, only chanting. I was trying to calm myself so decided to stop and explain that I didn't have a pen. I did so in English and Urdu. He had an incredible look in his eyes like I'd never seen before. It's almost like his one mission in life is to get that one pen of Kevin the passing cyclist. I say no pen, he come closer and says 'yes, one pen'. I say no again. He looks more eager than ever and again says 'yes, one pen'!
I speed off....
I kept trying to understand what's happening here. I know this valley has been travelled many thousands of times by high spending pen giving package tourists but this goes beyond that. It's something of a culture now. I just can't believe it's as bad as it is!
I push on. It's getting dark and the villages are emptying. I pass a small kitchen window. I must only be in the womans view for a fraction of a second but imediately hear 'one pen'. It's the speed of the request thats amazing. Usually both children and adults do a double take when they see me on the bike, but not here.
I reach Panikar and settle down for the night. I buy some batteries for my walkman to try and de-stress a little. I didn't enjoy today and start to think about leaving!
I wake the next morning and decide to stick my bike on the bus and leave the valley back to Kargil. It's a hard decission because I can see the incredible twin 7000m mountains of Nun and Kun just over the hill. I want to see them but I decide that tourism has damaged the valley and I don't want any part of it. I can't blame the locals for it....well not fully anyway.
I pop my bike on the roof of the bus and bacg my head on the low slung overhead powerline. Luckily I'm insulated off the ground.
I jump on the bus. A simple guy stares at me for the next 2hrs. It's common in
After 3 hours the bus stops in Sanku for a 20min break. The night before this place was a one pen horror story. I jump out expecting the same....but nothing. I walk down the street to buy fresh bread....nothing. I walk back up to purchase bananas....nothing. I sit and eat at the side of the road without one single request for anything. I can't believe it. Surely the simple feat of riding a mountain bike can't create such problems? I mean I'm still the same and the locals are still the same....I get more than a little confused....
Arrive back in Kargil. It's a crappy town only there to cater for the overnight tourists on the Leh-Srinagar route. It's a single dusty street town filled with local shops selling the usual stuff and dirty restaurants. The majority of hotels are flee ridden shit holes. I pay a little extra for a slightly better room. I get the usual hassle from the houseboat touts from
Srinagar trying to get me to pre-book their houseboat.