Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cycling from Manali to Leh

A 15-hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali is how it all began. Most of us met each other for the first time and little we knew that the next two weeks would bond us in a unique way. 13 of us from very different backgrounds came together with one common desire to cycle in the mountains. Some people had started cycling recently, some people had never really ridden outside of cities, some had no idea what really to expect from the trip. Everyone was full of excitement as we started to know each other and ask a lot of questions to Guru about everything. He also managed to have his own fun by fooling us at times with answers like “Leh’s elevation is less than that of Manali”.

Day 1 (Manali): The touristy town was warm and crowded. Some interesting things @ breakfast were yak cheese omelettes, some nice cherries and a lafa. We unpacked our cycles which took a few hours and did a small practice ride in the evening. 

Day 2 (Manali to Marhi): So we started the 475-km journey to Leh. It was quite sunny and we took an alternate route to the highway to avoid some traffic. I met two locals (both farmers) on the way and they both found the idea of us going to Leh on a cycle unacceptable. The reply when I said that we would go slow over 9 days was “9 kya 12 din le lo. Cycle chadni thode hi na itni upar tak!” We had our first victim of the trip pretty early and it was Pradeep’s cycle: one of the pedals was messed up and wouldn’t go in properly, so he went for the spare one. I was riding my own cycle despite the rear brake not working as it was an all uphill day and the plan was to fix the brakes up at camp, where we would have the new rotor. Got some nice kulfi and moong daal packets on the way and also couple of card decks. There is usually a lot of traffic till Rohtang and this day was no different. The Manali-Leh highway is built by BRO and early on along the way started their trademark witty one-liners on the road: “Trees don’t grow on money either!” and many more. We had to go through a lot of traffic towards the end of the day and it felt like it would snow but it didn’t.

The happy jet
Downhill from Rohtang
Day 3 (Marhi to Sissu): Crossed our first pass (Rohtang, almost 4000m) today. It was a steady climb from Marhi and was quite cold on the top. Catching up with Sharat (who would be always in the front) was Tej who earned a nickname jet for this reason. Pavan was pretty excited seeing snow for the first time ever. From Rohtang, it was a long downhill to Sissu and the road for most part was pretty bad. We had to cross some streams which was a lot of fun. Camp @ Sissu was pretty lovely, among the trees and a river flowing nearby. The river had a pretty strong current, so we couldn’t go close. A river also meant more to Ramesh than rest of us as he liked to have his solo walks. We had some beer and vodka in the evening and met a guy who was a teacher from Kanpur and was cycling solo from Leh to Manali and had started all the way from Srinagar. All on his own, I think his journey was not just physically more challenging than ours but much more mentally.

Sunset @ Sissu

Guru @ Keylong (lunch time)
Day 4 (Sissu to Jispa): I had to hop on the spare cycle as my back brake was practically useless. Given we were past Rohtang, the road was much better from now on as the vehicles were fewer. The views were also much better with some massive cliffs across the river as we started our day. This was the last day en route where we would have cellphone signals, which was actually a good thing. If we were not completely disconnected from the external world, it would have been a major distraction in enjoying the raw nature all around us. It was good to see most of the passers-by (especially a good number of bullet-riders) encouraging us with a thumbs-up, a hand-wave or even just a smile. Despite fewer vehicles, the balaclava had to be worn for most part of the trip because of the dust. It drizzled for a little while post lunch but we were lucky it didn’t get worse. Everyone was excited about the stay @ Hotel Ibex, a good bed and a 
Near Hotel Ibex, Jispa
hot-water bath for the last time before Lato. Anagh was blown away as we entered the hotel as he saw that we have TV in our hotel rooms and he could catch-up on all the world cup action. A stroll in the evening was almost a custom, so we went to the nearby river. Amit was super-excited about the moong daal and khatta-meetha which we could manage from a small shop nearby. Some of the rest of us played bluff in the night. As it would get tougher from the next day, we made sure we were all getting pampered in our own way.

View from Zingzingbar
Day 5 (Jispa to Zingzingbar): It was a good sign that people started forgetting which day or date it was. Altitude sickness started hitting some people, though not severely. Tej and Guru had a fall today but luckily not too bad. The two of them also got nicknames of mommy-daddy by Heena and me and it seemed so true every time they would start talking about their Bhutan stories. Everyone’s favourite was the “enerzie drink”. Lunch was near a lake called Deepaktaal, which was beautiful. 3 Frenchmen rode past us, all of them around 60 and fully self-supported. It was as if, all along the trip, someone was making sure we didn’t start thinking too high of ourselves. Although we didn’t end up playing it a lot, we tried this game while we were climbing where you have to come up with movie names one after another and every movie should have a common actor/actress with the previous one. Simple game but good enough to keep you busy when doing uphills. I and Tej had to give in when Amit started dominating it with all the movies from 70s. It was a parachute tent @ Zingzingbar (roughly 4300m) and not our individual ones. We ended up playing bluff again despite a plan for Mafia. We found our new bluffmaster (Tej), who taught us that a poker face can also have an eternal smile on it and bluff-catcher Amit, who ensured that the person next to him couldn’t win (unfortunately me in most cases!)

Sooraj Taal
Day 6 (Zingzingbar to Sarchu): Everyday was getting tougher than the previous one. We went higher up from Zingzingbar to cross Baralacha La (around 4900m). The climb was pretty good amid some snow walls. But before any of that was the first challenge of the day early on: crossing a very difficult stream. I think almost everyone had to get off cycle and Om helped most people with their cycles. The water was so freezing that I thought I was going to get my first flavor of frostbite. Luckily, it was just numbness and things got back to normal as soon as we were back on the saddle. Mandeep was super delighted to ride a 26” cycle after 4 days on his 29” cycle. Just before Baralacha La was a spectacular lake called Sooraj Taal, which was mostly frozen. Reminded me of some Antarctica views in all those nature documentaries. The rest of the day was mostly downhill and flat with the lunch break @ Bharatpur, the one with the psychedelic tent. There was hardly any snow post Baralacha La and we entered a desert with wide stretches of plains. We spotted a marmot on the way and it was a long time after which we saw an animal in the wild. There were some beautiful conical formations besides the river which we were following to Sarchu (border town between HP and J&K) and beyond. This was a particularly bad day when it came to flats, almost 5-6 of them. At the camp, we finally got Anagh to sing couple of lovely songs. Also had a clear star-studded sky second night in a row and Guru went in for some time-lapse shots. 
Near Sarchu

Whisky Nala

Day 7 (Sarchu to Pang): Was the most challenging day till Leh where we crossed two passes: Nakeela and Lachung La (above 5000m) and strong winds ensured that things remain exciting. The day began with a steady climb along Ghata Loops, a series of hair-pin bends. There was a steep shortcut trail which could be taken if one was coming down and that was super tempting. Between the two passes was our lunch place, Whisky Nala (no whisky though!) After we started climbing from there, Tej had a really hard time breathing and was almost out of breath at a point. It got a little scary and we thought we might need to give her oxygen. It took her a minute or so to recover but once she did, there was no way she would not cycle. Amazing willpower! We didn’t stay on the top of Lachung La for long as we would have cooled down quickly, plus there was a 20-km downhill ahead to us with a very bad road. So, we just did a quick groupie (group selfie) at the top, which had become a routine if Guru was around. In fact, my rule was if you’re short on time and not allowed to spend time taking out an SLR etc, then you just ask Guru for a selfie. The road to Pang was bad, but the view was beautiful. The sun was out of picture as we were closely surrounded by mountains. Snow continued to be a rarity and all that was in sight was different shades of brown and some artistic structures, inc one of the mountains that looked like a giant ant hill. It was one of those times when you feel so small and humble looking at the magnificent things around you. Like some other times, I was riding with Heena (our very own Suresh, the brand ambassador for crocs) towards the end of the group and with her eternal love for braking when going downhill, I almost got a wheelie twice. She would overuse her brakes so much that Virender had some tightening to be done many mornings, sometimes two days in a row. We reached Pang around 6 and it was going to be the second night with parachute tents. This 
Downhill to Pang
would be almost the highest campsite in the whole trip, a little over 4600m. There was one thing I had heard from Pradeep multiple times in the trip while riding along: “Why am I doing this!”, more as a question to himself. He finally asked the question to everyone in the camp that evening and it was an interesting mix of answers we all had. Altitude sickness continued to hit some people, esp Jay who seemed consistently stuck with his “slight headache”. Anagh was upset he was not able to ride for the second half of the day. There was an army transit camp in Pang where we learnt we could make a call till 6 PM. Though it was late, Amit and Anagh wanted to call back home, so we went and tried for it. Amit pulled some strings and we got lucky. The smile on Anagh’s face after he was able to talk to his family was priceless. He was somewhat emotionally drained and I think he got his pill via that satellite phone. 

Moore Plains
Day 8 (Pang to Tsokar Lake): The anticipation for Moorey plains was high with all the description from Guru. This was like a recovery day with just a 6-km uphill followed by a beautiful stretch of vast plains. The cherry on top of the cake was a light snowfall as we were riding through the plains. It was very different from the past 6 days. We finally saw some animals: few Tibetan wild asses, herds of Bharal (blue sheep) and yaks. The yaks were with a group of nomadic tribes. Everyone was relishing the ride in their own way, with plenty of photos being shot. Guru ensured he got his lone time behind all of us: him and the plains, a 4-year old connection now. Some of us started cycling with Anagh in the center who was singing as we were riding. And a good climax to the whole day was the beautiful Tsokar lake. With a 15 km detour from the main road, this was undisputedly the best campsite. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Looking around, I had a very strong urge to just get lost in the mountains and hike here forever. The area near the lake was mossy and there were some salt deposits too. There were also lots of burrows belonging to wild rats and marmots near the lake. In fact, I saw some marmots playing something like hide-and-seek in the evening. 
Camping @ Tsokar 
Evening was marked by some funny dumb charades rounds with Guru doing Kamasutra, Sharat doing 
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (Sikh under), Pradeep giving up on Qayamat se qayamat tak but the best of them where Amit was trying to enact Majboor and had gotten us to “Majdoor” and Mandeep stole the show with his joke “Rhyme to hum kar lenge, aap thoda context bhi to batao!”. It was very windy and cold given the area was completely open. In fact, the winds made my tent completely flat and half-uprooted the toilet tent in the evening. In the morning, I noticed that the water on one of the plates kept outside the kitchen tent completely froze. Still, none of this matched the serenity of the place. 

Day 9 (Tsokar Lake to Lato): This was the day where we crossed the highest point along Manali-Leh, Taglang La (over 5300m). While the riding since a week had gotten us used to the climbs, what stood out about Taglang La was not the height but the bad roads. It was just stones all along the way. The uphill stretch was pretty long and monotonous. We stopped for a while on the top and had Khichdi for lunch. The other side of the pass was all tarmac and one of the best downhills. We descended some 1300 m over the rest of the day till Lato. There was a very steep trail which would have been some real off-roading. We stuck to the main road and I tried taking a video from my cellphone for the first time while riding. We stopped at Rumtse for some tea and wai-wai. There was also an STD available which almost everyone used. It had been 5 days since all of us talked home, though it seemed a lot longer. The 4 km stretch from Rumtse to Lato was extremely beautiful. It was marked by villages (after almost 5 days for us) but as Anagh put it, the civilization added to the beauty of the place. Or maybe we just saw too many barren mountains and plains before this that the change seemed pleasant because it was not just villages and huts, there were trees and farms which we saw after a long while too. It was a homestay @ Lato and no more camps. The rooms and the blankets felt pretty cosy after the sleeping bags and we played dumb charades till almost midnight. This time we divided in two teams which made it more competitive. Sumedha somehow got stereotyped with movies like Basic Instinct and some others and he had his own way of getting his team from six to sex. Plus, his standard “holy crap” reaction when given a movie was a delight to watch. It was one of the only two times when someone like Ramesh got animated in the whole trip. There was a German guy (Christian) camping at Lato who was cycling towards Manali all by himself. He couldn’t leave the next day as it was drizzling all night and even continued in the morning. We could see Taglang La all covered in snow and realized how lucky we had been with the weather all these days. 
Just behind the Lato homestay

Mani stones, and a monastery in background
Day 10 (Lato to Leh): We started riding late with the drizzle continuing till almost 9. It was a steady downhill and we thought we would reach Leh pretty early but that didn’t happen. We crossed Indus along the way which seemed like any other ordinary river. There was an army base on the way where we stopped for some food. The canteen there claimed to be the highest Dosa point in the world, but unfortunately they were out of dosas. Even the tasty momos were limited to only a few plates, so we dug into other random things and stayed there lavishly for over an hour. Most people also got phone network, so it was time to get on another rounds of calls. The way from there to Leh was pretty scenic with some farms (although everything else at a distance was all desert), mani stones, monasteries etc. We reached outskirts of Leh at our own leisurely pace and then went to the Mahabodhi campus in Leh, an NGO run by a monk. Spent an hour or so there, talked to the founder monk and then headed towards the city, which was pretty dusty. The city was actually pretty ordinary except for the views of mountains around it. For dinner, we had pizzas, sizzlers, salads and many other things after a long time. The riding was still not over and the mammoth climb of Khardungla was awaiting us next morning. 

Emotional moments. That's me, Sumedha and Anagh

Celebration Time

Day 11 (Leh to Khardungla to Leh): Given it was a pretty long climb, we started early around 6:30. It was a 25 km climb till South Pullu on a nice tarmac road and a 14 km further climb on one hell of a bad road. We were about to gain an elevation of almost 1900m in one day, which was a lot, esp at that height. We reached South Pullu well on time and it was there we realized that the scene above was not good with all the snowfall in the night. The vehicles were stopped at the checkpost because it was too slushy and probably not safe to go up. After waiting for a while at the tea shop, we saw the vehicles had started going up, which gave some hope. It was still uncertain till which point would we be able to go if we continued. After all the contemplation, 8 of us started pedalling with the decision that we would go till the point the road would allow. I badly wished for us to not hit any roadblock, else it would be such an anti-climax. Luckily, the road was pretty broad all along that even if there was some water, it was manageable to go through. We tried to stick together as much possible and just kept going. It was the first time in the trip I listened to music to keep the rhythm going. Minor things like cramps and flats happened but we made it to the top with each other and that feeling is not really describable. There was crying and hugging and a sense of completion that meant a lot to all of us. It was one of those things that would be remembered and lived over and over. We got our usual groupie (group selfie) and the standard cycle salute photos. While riding down, the first half totally tested the whole body and the second one was a luxurious fast ride. The evening was all celebration with some beer and vodka. It was fun to see a different side of some people. With Pavan, it was one day where he got quite high in two different ways. Jay spoke much more than what I had seen him speak all these days. Amit and Mandeep (whose name, for some reason, continued to be confused with Manjeet throughout the trip) left for home the next morning and couldn’t join us for Pangong Tso. Despite 3 days left for the trip, I was already feeling sad that it was almost done and we would all be back to the cities and there would be no more mountains and cycling. 

The picture says it all

Day 12, 13 (Leh to Pangong Tso to Leh): It felt weird to be in a van and not riding on cycle, though we did enjoy some nice snowfall on the way. Pangong was pretty scenic, though it didn’t match the calmness of Tsokar with all the other people around. The afternoon was spent idling around with some photos and walking, though I just skipped my camera for the rest of the trip. It was one of those places where Sumedha got heavily bombed with his selfies. This was finally a good opportunity to play mafia as there was no more waking up early for cycling and people not tired. We started with it somewhere around the evening and once everyone picked it up, there was no stopping. We just forgot there was a campfire in the plan and kept playing till almost 1. It’s always fun to play the game with new people as the level of uncertainty goes up. From Ramesh playing the air-hostess type god, Tej trying hard to keep up with the argumentative nature of the game, me getting killed first by Mafia every time and always getting saved, Guru and I fighting violently with each other though both were on city’s side, Sumedha almost giving up on convincing people after getting burnt in one game and people almost sleeping in the last game, it was one hell of a night. The best part was to learn how some people actually dreamt about it. We reached Leh in the afternoon the next day and kept eating at the same place “Gespa”, which was pretty good. In the evening when everyone was up to their own thing, Heena and I went to the Leh palace, which was an interesting place. The shortcut to it was smelly and dirty but the 9-floor palace was nice. We explored almost every possible corner and got some nice views of the city. Left for Srinagar in the night and from there back home. 

The trip was special to me in many ways. I’ve always been in love with Himalayas but never explored them on a cycle before. I learnt a few things about myself, esp got inspired to explore more in life and further test my limits. Got to ride with a great bunch of enthusiastic people, which was a lot of fun.


  1. So well written. Its like the beautiful trip is so fresh in my head once again.

  2. Thanks for sharing.
    Very well captured.