Manali to Khardungala: Cycling World’s Highest Roads – For a major part of my upbringing, the Indian bourgeois mentality led me to focus more on excelling in academics rather than enriching myself with what I truly loved (Outdoors). The sedentary lifestyle of a Technology job, then the startup financial woes always created an internal dichotomy something which Herman Hesse so beautifully elucidates in his epic book — Steppenwolf
When I was 21 and into my first job, I’d decided, I’d quit with some money in 2 years and retire to the Himalayas. Distant dream as it was, it wasn’t until couple of years later, I started doing things that mattered more to me i.e. being in the outdoors and on my own.
I’d been planning to cycle in the Himalayas for a few years, but it was only the end of December 2015, it got me thinking if I was really going to delay it more and for what?
“Wishes are like seeds — few ever develop into something.”
— Michael Garofalo
I’m someone who is fairly comfortable with my skin to travel solo especially the wilderness, but I don’t mind “company” either; provided my sput•nik (traveling companion) has a similar puritanical traveling philosophy.
As the accomplished American mountaineer Ed Viesturs in his lecture, The will to Climb says:
“If I don’t like somebody at sea level, it’s not likely I’m going to like them at 26,000 feet”
In October 2015, I’d met Sahaj Parikh from Ahmedabad on a High Altitude trek in Sikkim, GoechaLa and his philosophy to hiking and outdoors was pretty similar to mine. I was pretty cool cycling solo in Ladakh, but was not averse to company either. In the words of Chris McCandless (Into the Wild)
Happiness is real when shared.
There are those Aha! moments and “Holy S***”, this place is beautiful” moments from top the mountain which need to be shared in Real Time with a friend, which is why a good company is not that bad after all!
So I checked with Sahaj if he was willing to join on a cycle trip across Himachal and Ladakh. And he didn’t disappoint. So much so he went on to buy a cycle for himself despite plans of leaving for Scotland only a month and a half after our planned trip.
Unlike many of my friends, he was convinced the moment I told him of the plan and there we were all set. He even convinced two of his friends Siddarth Daga and Krishna Rao to join us.
The tour was sort of an important junction in the life of all four of us I guess.. I was deliberating whether to continue doing some of the things I was doing at my startup or do something entirely different. Sahaj had quit his job at Schlumberger and was headed for an Msc. in Acoustics at University of Edinburgh in Scotland (in a months time), Siddarth was contemplating taking up a fellowship with Major Indian Public sector bank and Krishna had quit Schlumberger recently as well and was headed for a graduation degree in Hydrology at Stanford (in a month’s time). So I guess it was an important milestone for everybody!
It was the almost end of January 2016, when Sahaj replied in the affirmative and the plan was concretized. We planned to start the expedition 18 June 2016, and with something to look forward to in 2016, it looked like a good beginning to the new year.
Months slipped by and work, as usual, had caught up with me. My duties of handling the multiple responsibilities of a startup in a competitive landscape weren’t helping either. I rarely got an opportunity to cycle even on the weekends. All I managed as preparation was 15–20kms/week of running in the gym from the busy workdays while shuttling between Hyderabad and Bangalore.
It wasn’t until June, when I got few hundred kilometers as mileage under my belt on my Trek 4300, and by which time it was time to get moving to Manali from Hyderabad. I’d like to mention the support of Chitti from my neighborhood cycle shop, The Bike Affair. He helped in providing some very useful tips on mountain bike repair & handling in hostile terrains and his insights on possible failures.
I’ve always been the guy who believes that if you can’t fix your own bicycle (or at least make an effort to) you have no business cycling in the mountains. A Lot of people go for guided tours with backup vehicles carrying all of their luggage and organized accommodation at all stops. It just doesn’t cut any ice with me, just not my style. Majority of people don’t do it because they are scared of all that might go wrong, or that they don’t believe in their abilities or maybe because they just don’t want to take the hassle of doing the hard work! Majority are always looking for a safety net.
We had planned a fully self-supported expedition and we were carrying everything from Cycle maintenance tools, spares, sleeping bags, tents, clothes, mats, cameras, nutrition, emergency food etc.
To Flourish, you need to let go of all fears, “the safety net”
Now, to get to the details briefly, the plan was to cycle from Manali to Leh and then further north up to Khardungla top and back. For Logistics, I packed my cycle in a cardboard box (available at any good cycle store for 500 INR) and transported it via air to New Delhi. (Cost me an extra 3,000 INR for bubble wrapping and excess weight). From New Delhi, we transported the Cycle in Himachal Road Transport Corporation Himsuta Volvo. ( Ticket of which was INR 1,300 and cost an extra INR 300 for the cycle. )
We arrived in Manali around 11 am in the morning after a long tiresome journey from Delhi. We head up to Old Manali and bargained a cheap but spacious room, enough to crash for the night. It was a task getting all our bags and Cycle boxes up to the guest house in the remote corner of Old Manali but the place was pleasant. [ They even hid a majestic Yak in one of the rooms on ground floor, which we only discovered later : ) ] Post that we decided to head for lunch for our stomach and a bottle of beer for our hearts promising to get back to assembling the cycles and not crash for a siesta.
While the assembling went well, we caught up on some rest and decided to head down in search of few essentials for our trip like Snickers, Dry fruits, some cooking fuel, ORS and bike essentials which we had forgotten (Chain lubricant and a Schrader to Presta tube converter for the pump)
Soon afterwards as we finished the chores, we head out for dinner, deciding to eat really well (Carbohydrate and protein loading ), being a vegetarian cyclist that I am (get 10 points for that), refrained from the usual set of poultry and restricted myself to beans for proteins.
While we apprehensively tried the Local Apple cider, we didn’t notice we were six bottles down by the time we left. Although none of us had any intention to get a hangover before a major cycling day the next morning.
Next Morning we got ready by 630 am, contrary to my perception, had no hangover at all from the Apple Cider. We quickly assembled our panniers on the bicycles and were ready to go.
We stopped by for the last breakfast in Manali, where we met two guys from Bangalore, who were also starting the same day for Leh on their bicycles. Both were extremely fit. They planned to finish the journey in 6 days as opposed to the usual 9. They had done cycling brevets of up to 1200 km’s in 70 hours. (That is some achievement after all). Moreover, they were also carrying light with just one small backpack as opposed to bunch of stuff we were carrying in our backpacks, panniers and rucksacks.
Post breakfast, we’d planned to stop by the only cycle shop in Manali (Firefox store on the mall road), where we had to buy the tube converter (schrader to presta) for Sahaj. The guy who owned the shop did not open until 1 pm. The 4-hour wait just ruined our schedule. We knew we couldn’t leave without the pump or the converter as it was absolutely essential.
We got started only around 1:45 pm from Manali towards Marrhi [36 kms in distance but 1600m of climb ]. We knew our task was cut out. We began the ascent to Kothi first. Reached there soon enough for Lunch and Sahaj joined soon afterwards… It was a while before Krishna reached about 1.5-2 hours later around 5 pm. Apparently his drive chain had snapped and took him a while to fix it. We decided Marrhi was out of bound to reach in daylight, so we aimed for Gulaba instead. Gulaba is 8 kms from Kothi with about 300m altitude gain.
Reached Gulaba at 630 pm and still had daylight to search for some camping ground. At Gulaba, right at police check post, we found a meadow hidden well inside marked with trees.
We setup camp at Gulaba, ate the food we had got packed at Kothi. One of the best Biryani and Rajma combo I’d ever tasted in my entire life. A Good day had come to an end. We had our task cut out for the next day, We had to cross the mighty Rohtang Pass at 3980msl.
The morning greeted us with some great views of the mountain with fresh snow fall from the night before. It is the kind of view you relish waking up from sleep in your camp in the mountains.
We started early about 8am aiming for some breakfast at Marrhi and crossing over Rohtang Pass and then to Sissu. The ride from Gulaba to Marrhi was just out of the world. Soon, we were leaving the Tree line but only briefly. The Kullu valley side of the Rohtang Pass receives good rainfall and is humid to allow for flora to flourish more easily as compared to the Rain shadow region on the Lahaul valley side, which is much drier and receives lesser rainfall.
Met a Swiss guy named Dario cycling the same route, he had cycled numerous countries in the world for the last 3 years with Iran being his favorite. He mostly cycled barefoot, was carrying much heavier panniers on his cycle and had been cycling extensively across India staying in tents and eating at temples, gurudwaras to keep his travel cost low. At other times, he would just prepare, rice and Dal on his portable stove. Interesting as it seemed, Dario soon overtook me due to his superior cycling stamina. Only much later, met him in Leh and in Pang afterwards.
We reached Marrhi by 10:30 am. We had breakfast and relaxed for a bit before the final climb to Rohtang. Fortunately, it was a Tuesday and serendipitously realized that Rohtang Top is closed to Tourist traffic meaning less traffic on the road leading to the pass. By this time though, the weather had turned from sunny to cloudy and a downpour was imminent.
Rohtang Top is approximately 16–17 kms from Marrhi with about 400 meters of climb. Having reached Marrhi was task half done. We started the ascent around 12 and reached the top at 2 pm. To my surprise did not find a single soul on Rohtang Top.
“ It was raining by then and my dream of having hot Maggi or Wai-Wai was shattered. I know there is no pot of gold waiting on mountain tops but a Maggi sure doesn’t hurt. “
Rohtang by the way on every day except Tuesday is full of tourists but this year (2016), the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had limited Tourist traffic on Rohtang pass. (unless you are Environment-Friendly cyclists like us )
There is no one else who values a downhill more than a cyclist, not a motorbiker, not a four-wheeler for sure, to whom they mean nothing.
Unfortunately, the road on the Lahaul &Spiti valley side of Rohtang is the more shoddily maintained one. The downhill wasn’t exciting and it had got pretty cold by then, due to rain and heavy wind. To be honest the uphill wasn’t excruciating at all despite the difficulty. But, the downhill owing to poor road conditions, wind chill and rain was playing mind games with me.
The Mind — a Beautiful servant and a dangerous master -Osho
The downhill also bought the first technical failure of the trip. The carriers with my panniers fell off the cycle. While I was fixing it Krishna arrived and helped me put them back on. We were shivering in the cold and found it super difficult fixing what was a minor issue.
Finally, Sahaj arrived too and with him, we glided to more calmer weathers of Khoksar. At Khoksar, we relished some hot Thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) to get our mojo back, after having made the first accomplishment of steering our ships steadily across the mighty RohtangLa amidst inclement weather.
Sensing our renewed vigor, the didi who served us the delicious Thukpa, motivated us to take our bums to Sissu (15kms from Khoksar) instead, an advise we would only later realize was well worth it.
The ride from Khoksar to Sissu is on a rolling terrain and wasn’t much of an ordeal. The Roads were in mint condition and the landscape awe-inspiring. It’s precisely why one falls in love with the Lahaul valley.
The Government is building a Rohtang tunnel almost leading up to Sissu. The locals believe that it is going to destroy the Lahaul & Spiti valley due to the influx of tourists all through the year. It would end up becoming another Manali and the culture and civilization of this guarded area (for some Shangrila) will be eternally lost.
Would urge Government of India to only allow Local residents, essential goods vehicle and Army movement once the tunnel is constructed (during the winter months atleast)
Note: Rohtang Pass closes due to snowfall every year, mid/end September and stays that way until April
At Sissu, we decided against camping and stayed in a homestay instead. Hot Water bath beckoned. Krishna’s carrier had broken meanwhile and so we had to walk the final kilometer to Sissu. We also had to figure a way to get his carrier welded, or inform Siddarth Daga to get a new one. [ Sidd was supposed to join us in Keylong the next day ] Homestay helped in catching up with much needed rest.
The Morning, Krishna took an HRTC bus to Keylong (35kms from Sissu) to find a workshop where he can figure a way to fix his rack without which carrying the pannier and bags on the cycle was not possible. Meanwhile, I and Sahaj strolled the Village of Sissu to catch up on some nature love, breakfast and time-lapses.
Farms, Mountains, Lake, Helipad and the Chandra River, — Sissu, Lahaul Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India
At about 11 am Sahaj and I started for Keylong to join Krishna, hoping he would have found a fix for the bike luggage carrier. We crossed some of the best parts of the valleys before hitting a rather dusty patch while approaching Tandi. Tandi is the last petrol pump in Himachal and the last one on the Manali — Leh Highway before Karu in Leh.
Tandi is also significant because it’s the confluence of the Chandra and the Bhaga river. Ancient folklore says, Chandra [the Daughter of Moon god], and Bhaga the son of Surya (Sun God) eloped and married against their parents wish and met at Tandi where they form the Chandrabhaga river draining further downstram into the Chenab in Jammu & Kashmir. Incidentally, Chandra river originates near the lake ChandraTal in Spiti valley and Bhaga river originates further upstream Suraj Tal Lake at BaralachaLa Pass
The road conditions which deteriorated from Sissu to Tandi, become good again post Tandi till about 4 km’s before Keylong.
In Keylong, We finally met Krishna again, who was able to make a custom cycle luggage carrier in a local DIY workshop. Quite an accomplishment it was! Our plan was now to get a place to crash and we decided to rent a hotel instead of camping as Siddharth was to arrive from Manali post a long journey.
While looking for a hotel, we bumped into the security and the escort team of the Local District commissioner at Keylong, who were quite amazed to see us cycle all the way to Leh. During the conversation, they suggested we have food at Jammu Dhaba (Deep Sweets, Keylong market).
Looking forward to good food asap, we found a good room at Snowland hotel where we bargained a good price, took a hot water bath and then head out straight to Jammu Dhaba run by the gentleman Mr. Deep and the place sure didn’t disappoint. The food there was tasty and super economical.
Post food, we hiked to the Khardang Monastery, perched on the hill top on the other side of Keylong crossing the river Bhaga. Khardang is a famous Drukpa Lineage monastery, and also the most important monastery in the Lahaul valley. The village of Khardang was once the capital of Lahaul.
We had a brief chat with the head Monk who showed us around and also gave us some insights about the history of the monastery before offering us some melody chocolates.
We left the monastery around 6:45 pm so that we had enough daylight to cross back to Keylong, where we were also expecting Siddarth, who was arriving by the bus from Manali. By the time, we reached Keylong, Siddharth called up, his bus was almost at the bus station. We carried the Allen key sets and tools and met him at the Keylong bus station. we unpacked and assembled his cycle at the bus station itself all ready to ride!
We then head to a small dhaba where an old man had promised to share his Chhang (Local Rice beer) along with some food.
Next day, we had planned a short cycling trip only, primarily as we wanted Siddarth to acclimatize to the altitude and get some cycling mileage before we start climbing the high passes starting BaralachaLa. So we decided we’d cycle only upto Jispa, camp there for the day and chill around exploring the village. The ride from Keylong to Jispa was scenic and not that tough.
Jispa greets you with excellent views of the Bhaga River which is much less ferocious here (being upstream) and fed by fewer nullahs than by the time it reaches Keylong, where the river becomes quite a force to reckon with.
Village of Jispa, Himachal, India
On reaching Jispa, we looked for a good camping spot, and the caretaker at the Mountaineering and Allied Sports (sub center) obliged, letting us set up our camp in their backyard
We didn’t waste a lot of time and got to task to setup our camp, throw in our stuff and head to explore Jispa and possibly hike to the dilapidated monastery, uphill.
Jispa is a beautiful village. The caretaker of the property was quite chatty and would often share stories about his trekking experience. He also shared another sorrowful story stating that the govt has proposed building a dam near Jispa which would lead to complete submergence of the beautiful village and so with it the culture & history of this great place. It was sad especially since I was having a parallel discussion with Krishna (a Civil Engineer) that Hydroelectric Energy is not very clean though on the surface it seems so.
Dams lead to submergence of large parts of land mass and lot of people, flora and fauna are displaced or decimated. India has high energy requirements as a large part of our country is still not on the electricity grid.. It’s a difficult line to walk..
Is hydroelectric the answer to our energy woes? Is it worth it? Only time will tell..
With confused thoughts, we head up to the Monastery looking for some divine answers if they were to be found in the hills. The walk was hardly a stretch as we reached the top in no time.
Back to base camp, we chilled for a bit at the River. The currents were high just like our spirits and the water was cold! Took some time off thinking about metaphysics and oddities of life.
Returned to base to witness some pure magic worth a picture
The next morning we removed our camp and planned to clean and lube our bicycles after the hit it got on Rohtang downhill and approach to Tandi. Fixed some lingering braking issues on Krishna’s bike and then head to our next base for the day: ZingZing Bar (via Darcha and Patseo).
After a quick breakfast of Aloo Parantha (Carb loading ) we head towards Zing-Zing Bar. The road from Darcha to Patseo is not entirely super quality. Infact it’s extremely narrow and quite dangerous. It’s mostly crooked and dusty for the majority of the journey. There are couple of instances of roads being washed by Nullahs requiring extreme caution while crossing them. One simply can’t cycle through them depending on the time of the day. It’s generally rough during noon. The roads get better only about 6–7 kilometers before Patseo where you get a nice little stretch of downhill too.
At Patseo, there is a small lake by name Deepak Tal, right beside the Army camp. While waiting on other guys to arrive, met Dennis Rijlaarsdam from Netherlands. He was cycling from Manali to Leh too. He would then join us later next day post-Bharatpur and pretty much stayed with us from there on till Leh.
Dennis had just completed Medical School and per him, everyone after their Theoretical medical course in Holland has to wait 8 months before they start their internships which go on for another 3 years. In the idle 8 months, he had decided to backpack Asia and had been to Myanmar, Vietnam and spent some time offering pro-bono basic medical services at a hospital in Nepal.
Stopped by at Patseo for a bit, waiting for the boys to come. Post which we relaxed by the lake before we set out for ZingZingbar.
The Ride from Patseo to ZingZingBar was scenic and didn’t make us sweat and was a decent roll till Z.Z Bar milestone which read 0Kms. I had silenced my mind to go to rest and that the cycling for the day was over. At which point, the local BRO (border Roads Organization) person told, that we had to cycle another 6kms uphill to reach the actual ZingZingbar location, where we can find some food/ dhaba etc. It was an excruciating climb at sunset in cold weather to reach Z.Z bar (6kms) where we found some food tents.
At ZinZingBar, we stayed at a roadside temporary tented accommodation (setup by locals in the months April — September to cater to travelers). The weather was cold and the wind quite heavy. However, enough blankets meant the sleep was largely peaceful and woke up next morning to a warm and beautiful sunrise.
A ray of sunlight is hope in the mountains to get rid of all the bone chills the wind and clouds bring with them.
The Mountain Pass Day:
The ascent to BaralachaLa from ZingZingBar was scenic and roads suddenly changed from the usual landscape of Mountain on one side and Valley on the other to riding in between two mountains… The way it is usually when approaching high mountain passes. At an altitude of 4890m Baralachala is one of the highest motorable roads in India.
Just a few km’s before the pass is the glacial Lake — The Suraj Vishal Tal, the third highest lake in India.
The GoPro set to capture some time-lapses — Suraj Tal, Himachal, India
Once Sahaj arrived, We rested for a bit and then started the ascent to BaralachaLa pass. BaralachaLa had no snow this year. Reflecting the sad reality of global warming and what we are doing to our beautiful planet.
From BaralachaLa there was descent till Bharatpur where we stopped by for Lunch. Also met Dennis (the Dutch guy) who arrived a little while after I’d reached. Soon afterwords, Krishna and Siddharth arrived as well. From Bharatpur we had to head to Sarchu.
Sarchu is the border of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. It’s largely meadows and has unique Himalayan Canyons on the Tsarap river.
The road from Baralachala to Sarchu is poorly maintained. It’s only when you are entering Sarchu are the roads top notch owing the presence of an Army camp.
Krishna and Dennis were not far back and arrived almost around the same time. We decided to walk a bit to gaze at our own local Ladakhi Grand Canyon.
We finally arrived in Sarchu around 4:30 pm and planned to camp near the first temporary shed next to the check post (on the J&K side) run by an old Ladakhi lady by name Dolma. She was old but witty and helped us with some hot chai, food, and jokes.
We walked up to a hill nearby with Sahaj’s tanpura to finally play some music and may be caught on to some epiphanies that nature had to offer.
I also loved the camp spot at Sarchu, it was green, beautiful, well protected from the approach road and just at the footsteps of the holy hill solemnized by a Dhrupad music piece Sahaj had just rendered there 🙂
We quickly setup camp and head back to our host Dolma for some Roti, Rice, Rajma and Sabzi (vegetables). We then slipped into our tents and sleeping bags and fell asleep soon. The day after was a two mountain pass day with 21 Gata Loops leading upto the Nakeela pass at 4739 msl, slight descent to whisky nullah and then on to LachungLa pass at 5059 msl.
The road from Sarchu to the base of Gata Loops is one of the best you’d get to ride onto in this part of the world. The 23kms stretch to the base took us no time. But the real test was about to begin the ascent of the Gata Loops.
Gata Loops were by far the one which drained most of my mental willpower. The major reason being, I assumed and expected the Nakeela pass at the end of Gata Loops. Up for a surprise, it was another 10kms and maybe 300m of high gradient climb which I was left to climb up to the Nakeela Pass.
Most things in Life are mental, infact anything is a possibility if you can learn to train your mind. Cycling or any sport for that matter is more mental than being a purely physical activity. You can enjoy the journey if you have physical strength but with mediocre skills you can still overcome your mind to stretch and accomplish some really tough feats.
The descent from NakeeLa was a charm as roads were good. The brief downhill takes one to Whisky Nullah, a landlocked mini valley only to start the ascent to LachungLa (5051 msl) again.
On reaching Whisky Nullah, I spotted Dennis who had reached already and we shared some notes about our experience of the excruciating climb post Gata Loops to Nakeela Pass. An hour later, Krishna arrived, too. Sahaj arrived a little while later and finally Siddarth arrived too. While, I still wanted to do LachungLa the same day, the others were not keen. It felt right because the guys were obviously exhausted and in the hindsight it was a better decision to enjoy the climb to LachungLa the next day than push yourself unnecessarily.
At Whisky nullah, we setup our camp after some rest and got us the usual Rice and Rajma daal and some Butter Tea ( finally ).
At Whisky Nullah, also met Torres (Janek Franek), the vivacious Spaniard based out of Norway as of now. He quipped, he did not know where he belonged to anymore since he had lived about 15 years outside of Spain.
He had started cycling from New Delhi and was in Africa prior to India, cycling in Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania etc and had also cycled the whole of South America. He was writing a book too which per him was political, historical and erotic, he chuckled. We got chatting quite a bit.
He was carrying about 40kgs of load on the cycle and was almost in trouble because the Garmin GPS showed him a village at the end of Gata Loops which as it seems was non-existent. He was exhausted by then and had to hitch a ride till Whisky Nullah.
Janek (Torres) has been a brother since!
At Whisky Nullah, we spent some time lazing, chit-chatting and gulping butter tea before we crashed for the night in our tents. The next morning awaited yet another high altitude pass and the journey up to Pang and further to Debring.
The morning, there was no sunshine at all. Gloomy clouds hovered above us and the temperature was cold enough to prevent any attempt to come out of the sleeping bag. We waited for it to get a little warm but it wouldn’t. We finally left Whisky Nullah for an ascent to LachungLa.
The Ascent to LachungLa was about 5–6 km’s from Whisky Nullah but was steep. As soon as I reached the top, it had started snowing. There weren’t many people there but whatever little was, they were quite amazed at why someone would arrive at an inhospitable pass on a bicycle… Only that, I never can subscribe to such thoughts… Cycling is one of the best things to do in the mountains…
Moreover, once you surrender to the mountains they take care of you..
The descent from LachungLa was beautiful. It presented a very different landscape from what we were seeing on the journey. It had changed drastically. The landscape had brilliance written on every corner and the overcast weather was adding to the details in the sky. Ladakh is essentially dry and the sun can get to you quite badly. Though it was cold and overcast, the cold was still better than blazing hot sun at least in that moment.
At Pang, I met up with Torres and Dennis who were there already. We ordered Chowmein and Chai. Torres had plans to cycle in Spiti after he was done with Ladakh. We discussed the map and route as I had been to Spiti a few years back. After a while, the boys arrived and they had lunch, post which we planned to leave for Debring ( on the foothills of TanglangLa ). It instantly reminded us that it was yet another mountain pass day tomorrow.
TanglangLa — is the second highest motorable road at an altitude of 5328m and one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever climbed. It’ barely 30m shorter than Khardungla yet not as glorified as it’s northern cousin.
No wonder it’s always the winner whose glorified in our societies.
How many would remember Edwin Aldrin was second man to set foot on the moon and traveled with Neil Armstrong in the same Apollo spacecraft ? [ unless of course it wasn’t worth remembering, courtesy the whole moon journey was a big American / CIA hoax ]
Soon we left Pang and were on our way to Debring. There is a huge climb from Pang to the More plains post which there is almost flat gradient to Debring. But the climb was quite tough. We baptized it as PangLa jokingly, due to the sheer effort it took climbing it on a cycle.
PangLa, as we named it leads to the More plains, a flat grassland mostly inhabited by ChangPa’s -the wandering shepherds with their goats and sheeps.
For Majority, I felt like Dr. Albert Hoffman except I was tripping on nature and the beauty of the plains hidden within mountains. There were no Kaleidoscopes, nor did I wish for one. It wasn’t a trip that I’d wanted to end.
There were cattle, grasslands, Mountain, water streams, peace and pure freedom. What else can one wish for?
We camped behind a temporary tent run by two Ladakhi women, who also helped us with some food during our stay. When we stepped into the kitchen for dinner that night there were two guys sipping a local beer called the Godfather. Sahaj had to give me a look once and then to Dennis and we were game.
I wouldn’t know of any sane cyclist to reject a beer after a long day on the saddle. Oxygen was of course still secondary if someone would offer that to me too in a well-packaged bottle too? So we had dinner while sipping a glass of Godfather, it ensured sound sleep and beautiful dreams of TanglangLa, the pass we would cross the next day.
The only apparent disadvantage of drinking beer at night at that altitude is if you are camping. You’ll have to answer the nature’s call at least once during the night. I’m sure, getting out of the sleeping bag, unzipping the tent entrance in the night at sub zero degree Celsius and getting your shoes on is not a very encouraging scenario!
The next morning was gloomy with a sky full of clouds and it wasn’t helping. There was wind chill and our legs were not warmed up enough to start cycling.
It was not until 10 am when we finally started for TanglangLa. It was the last mountain pass we had to ascend on our way to Leh. The climb to TanglangLa is steep but much more linear as compared to loops you’d find on NakeeLa, RohtangLa, LachungLa, and BaralachaLa. You have long roads winding almost inside and emerging again on the adjacent massif.
I had been silently suffering a severe pain in the Achilles Tendon possibly Achilles tendinosis, started & aggravated further by wrong pressure I was putting on them on the ascents. There was heavy inflammation and It was becoming excruciatingly difficult to cycle the morning we started. At one point I had almost given up. I got off the cycle and waited just before the ascent of TanglangLa. I stretched for a bit to see if it can relieve me of some pain. After waiting for a bit, it got little better at which point I decided I had to do the climb non-stop. Distracting the mind from the pain wasn’t going to be easy for long. I started pedaling now..
Met a lot of Royal Enfield Motorbikers on the way, One even shouted out “Amazing Determination Man!” which I appreciated as I knew how painful it was on the tendons and cycling in high altitude.
A 4km stretch of the major 25 km’s climb was absolutely pathetic. Difficult to ride on them would be an understatement, but I knew I had no option. There was only one goal, to keep pedaling.
“People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit. Most men succeed because they are determined to.”
On the climb, you just count kilometers to the top. My motivation was dropping with every passing moment till the point it read TanglangLa: 5kms. I could even see the summit which was visible from far away.
“It’s always good when goal is in sight even if little far fetched. Keeps your motivation level up. It’s only when goal is not in sight that shoulders droop, legs give up and it’s difficult to lift your spirit.”
“Nothing can withstand the power of the human will if it is willing to stake its very existence to the extent of its purpose.”
“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always
wins — not through strength but by perseverance.”
— Jackson Brown
After having finally ascended TanglangLa successfully, I relaxed there for a bit and took some mandatory photos and then started for Rumtse.
The descent from TanglangLa to Rumtse, is the best downhill one can get anywhere in India. It’s those kinds of tarmac you’d imagine looking at the Tour De France, Zig-zagging through mountains. On this downhill, I reached my top speed of the tour. Maybe 62kmph. Krishna, reached upwards of 75Kmph on this stretch, he later shared. I’m generally conservative on the downhills and use the brakes quite often. Krishna and Sahaj, I’m sure did not believe in applying brakes on the downhills. They were certainly quick and brilliant on these stretches.
I had reached TanglangLa Top around 2 pm and was in Rumtse around 3:20 pm where Dennis had already arrived. Krishna arrived an hour later and about another few minutes later Sahaj was there as well. We were waiting for Siddharth who arrived by 6:30 pm. We’d meanwhile fed ourselves some food and made some calls back home from a Local BSNL phone booth, after a long time to inform of our good wishes of our well being. On Manali — Ladakh stretch there is hardly any phone connectivity post-Jispa.
We had decided that if Siddaarth arrives by 6:30 pm we would depart to Upshi which was about 30kms from Rumtse, else we would stay back at Rumtse for the day. To our surprise, he arrived right on the dot. We immediately ordered food for him and then set out for Upshi after he was done. The landscape we were about to encounter was out of the world.
There was magic on every corner. Every village we encountered on the way was unbelievably trippy. Our 60 minute mild downhill to Upshi was stretched to 2 hours after we took it easy on the stretch, stopping & appreciating the beauty and serenity of the landscape from Rumtse to Upshi.
Further down, there was Lato, which was equally mind-blowing. Sahaj was deliberating finding some work opportunity that would make him stay in one of these villages as a long term option. I was thinking on similar lines.
Beautiful Landscapes just kept mesmerizing us. Suddenly, I did not want to go to Leh anymore. Settle down here maybe?
Around 8:30 pm we reached Upshi which was a true Anti-climax. Upshi is just a tri-junction with roads leading up to Leh, Chumathang / Tso-Moriri and Manali respectively. We could not find a decent place to stay in Upshi as it was crowded with vehicles, trucks and it’s mostly a check post town. We managed a small room in a super shady building but it was good as long as we found a place to tuck away our bicycles safely. Reaching late ensured we could not find a place to camp as well.
To our consolation, Upshi is also the place where you get the first glimpse of the Indus river in the Ladakh valley. (when approaching from Manali)
Next morning, with no plans in mind, Leh only 42kms away and no more high mountain passes to climb, we gave ourselves a break. We walked up to the Indus. A beautiful sight it was, with blue sky and reflections in the water.
We walked further to the edge of the town, tracking down the course of the Indus river. The views were just too good for us to not stand and gaze in amazement.
We lazed around for a while before deciding, we would not head to Leh, instead, go to Hemis monastery and stay there for some time. Hemis was 19 km’s from Upshi via Karu (Indian Army base). The first 10 km’s till Karu was slight uphill but from Karu to Hemis is a decent 9 km’s climb.
We started for Hemis from Upshi around 2 pm, Dennis did not want to come to Hemis and left for Leh instead. At the monastery, we took a room at the guest house and went out to eat at the monastery cafeteria.
After which, I finally took bath after a week instantly feeling like human again.
At around 6:30 pm there was a prayer session inside one of the main rooms of the monastery. It went on for about 1.5 hours during which we were served butter tea, tea and a bunch of goodies by the monk. It was good to meditate for a while and contemplate converting to Buddhism (for a bit) just out of love for the butter tea.
We came back to the room and crashed. The next day, early morning we went to another prayer session at the monastery and came out to some lovely sounds and feeling good about life.
Post the morning prayer session, we had breakfast and hung around the monastery exploring the bookstore at the museum and spoke at length to one of the young monks Tsewang, who took a time-out to answer our inquisitive questions. Apparently, the monks were also rehearsing the Cham dance for the upcoming Hemis festival in 2 weeks time.
Speaking to the monk, we also got to know about the caves which are further uphill from Hemis and some monks meditate there for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days to attain a higher state of consciousness. We were eager to do the short hike and get to see the place. We also wanted to explore the surrounding areas of the monastery. We soon set out, heading to the Stupa first.
There is also a statue of Buddha on the top of a hill which presents great views of the monastery.
We descended by 3:30pm just in time to have lunch, pack our bags and bid goodbye to the monastery which had been our host for a day. It’s difficult to completely describe the experience staying at the monastery. It was rich in experience, meditative and comforting especially after 10 long days of cycling. While we were leaving Tsewang, the cool monk bid us goodbye. We left Hemis only around 5:30 pm hoping to reach Leh just in time to find some accommodation.
We took the inside road to Leh instead of the arterial National Highway. That meant we rarely encountered any moving vehicles or big trucks. It was also the more scenic route with trees on either side. The Location just off the monastery is also a Guinness world record site for maximum trees planted in a single stretch of land in one hour.
Guinness World Record Site, Hemis, Leh
We also encountered splendid Landscapes on the way, passing through multiple tiny villages.
The views were just as mesmerizing as they can get. We crossed Shey Palace and Thiksey monastery on the far right.
As we cycled through villages, We could see the City of Leh far off in the valley. Leh was only 45 kms from Hemis but the headwind was strong enough to ensure that it was not going to be easy cycling even on rolling terrain.
By the time, we reached Leh, it was dark and we had no head or tail lights. Plus the Ascent to Leh from Choglamsar is quite a climb. Sahaj’s friend, Sanjay was already in Leh and he was putting up at Hotel Rirab on Changspa road. So we head there.
That bought to the end the cycling trip but not without its logical conclusion. We still had to do Khardungla top, but it was more of a day trip. We decided to take it easy that night and take a day off the next to relax and explore Leh a bit.
Sanjay, took us out to ‘The Punjabi Dhaba’ close to Zorawar Fort where we had finger licking, authentic Indian food for a dime! We were wasted post that for the quantity of food we had!
We met Torres and Dennis in the evening and we all had a small celebration for our achievements at one of the many fancy but localized restaurants on Changspa Road. Changspa, which by the way is highly commercialized and bustling with foreign tourists mostly. (Something like a more dry weather cousin of Old Manali). We’d decided to do Khardungla the next morning.
We got up early, got rid of all our panniers, carriers etc and were just carrying essentials in the Hydration backpack. We started around 745 am and Dennis and Torres joined us on the way around 830pm. Khardungla at 5380 meters above sea-level (msl) is 40 km from Leh with 1800 m of altitude gain. At that height, the oxygen levels drop to approx 45% of what it is at sea-level.
Khardungla no doubt was a challenge. We had decided to take a break at South Pullu which is 15kms before Khardungla Top. South Pullu itself being at 4600 msl and almost a 1000m rise above Leh.
It was fun cycling with Torres, as we had interesting conversation cycling till South Pullu. Post South Pullu the roads were absolutely dismal and not fit for cycling at all. There wasn’t even a trail you could find to cycle on. I somehow managed the struggle till Khardungla reaching only at about 4:45/5pm.
It was also motivating as it was my birthday and I did manage to gift myself something good on that day!
The descent was gross till South Pullu again, beyond which it was fabulous. It was the end of the journey when I touched the hotel, knew wasn’t going to cycle again for some time now, the legs and the mind needed some much-deserved break! I didn’t mind a beer served with some oxygen at the end of it 🙂
The trip was memorable for sure for all the joy, new friendships, the pain and there were learnings!
- Do not delay what you really want to do in life. I had been thinking of cycling in the highlands of Ladakh for quite some time, till I finally put it in action. As the famous words of Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
2. There is no safety net, forget that there will ever be. Our trip was fully self-supported with each individual being in full capacity to take care of himself should he face a situation. Many of us in life don’t take enough steps because we are afraid of failure and things that can go wrong. Always believe in your capabilities and be willing to fail and get up again. “The man who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.” — Dale Carnegie
3. Climbing mountain passes on cycle is tough, When facing difficult situations, sometimes the easy path of quitting is always the more lucrative. Keep Pedalling! “Victory doesn’t come to an individual who is destined to success, but someone who is determined to success.”
4. Do not refrain from setting yourself tough goals in life: “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” — Moliere
5. When riding on long and difficult roads, all by yourself, there isn’t anyone around to motivate you, you’ve got to motivate yourself, Imagine your goal and keep working towards it. “If you want to reach a goal, you must ‘see the reaching’ in your own mind before you actually arrive at your goal.” — Zig Ziglar
Here is my itinerary for Cycling World’s Highest Roads