The Manali-Leh Highway
Maps and Guides
Route finding between Manali and Leh is quite easy, as there are almost no turnings to get lost on. This is good, as there are few good maps of the region. The trekking maps are so simplified as to be useless, and contain errors such as villages marked on the wrong side of rivers, etc. The United States Army maps are beautiful, but very out of date not having been revised since the early 1960s. The Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are directed towards backpackers travelling by bus rather than cyclists. They therefore do not contain much in the way of useful route information of the "here is a 1500 ft climb, very shitty road" variety. We were pretty much unaware of the existence of the Gata Loops and Nakeela Pass for example, and so while we expected an easy, level 30 mile cycle to the bottom of the Lachalang La from Sarchu, we were shocked to find ourselves after 16 miles easy riding with a climb of over 1000 ft in about 6 miles, followed by several miles of further climbing through high-altitude desert to the Nakeela Pass! The Trailblazers guide Trekking in Ladakh is moderately useful when on the route, but is obviously more walking-oriented than cycling. It is not as informative about places of interest as the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to the area.
Take the right fork at the roundabout in Manali as you go up the main street and follow the road to the Rohtang Pass. On the other side of the pass about 60 km (37 miles) from Manali, turn left at the bottom towards Koksar and Sissu. At Tandi, 105 km (65 miles) from Manali there is another T-junction where the road crosses the river Chandra and begins following the Bhaga river to Keylong. Keylong, at 113 km/70 miles from Manali, is really the only real town on the entire route. The road then winds its way with no turnoffs or junctions for the next 323 km/200 miles, crossing the Baralacha La, the Lachalang La and the Taglang La before joining the Indus river at Upshi, 49km/30 miles from Leh. Turn left to Leh here, and at Karu 14km/8.5 miles from Upshi take the left turn at the roundabout to get on the Leh road.
Update August 2002: Many thanks to Shubhosen Gupta, Sam Grummit and his friend Ian, who cycled the route July 2002. They provided me with details of the road as it is this year and I have been able to update the route details below and in the summary.
*Includes detour to visit the Hemis Monastery on the way
The route profile is shown below. A table summarising the route with altitudes, distances and availability of food and accommodation, is available here.
Unless you are either (a) really hard, or (b) a bit of a nutter, you will end up doing the ride in one direction, and either cycle elsewhere from your destination or return via motor vehicle or aeroplane. So which direction is best, Manali-Leh or vice-versa? We did it Manali to Leh, as is probably clear from this website, and I think this makes sense for a couple of reasons. Assuming one is not adapted to altitude before the start, it will be obvious from the above profile that doing it in the Manali-Leh direction allows for a much better ascent profile that the other direction-sleeping heights are always of a moderate increase. This is perfect for acclimatisation. Going from Leh involves immediately going over a high pass to sleep at above 15,000 ft, and then sleeping at a progressively lower altitude each day thereafter; not as good. Once one leaves the river at the bottom of the Taglang La, no water is available until Pang, which probably means that two day's water must be carried up the 3,000+ ft climb of the Taglang La, unless you are moving pretty fast, or have a support vehicle. I also found it more aesthetically pleasing to start at Manali in "India proper", with the objective of reaching Leh, capital of the 16th century mountain kingdom of Ladakh, rather than the other way around, but that's probably a matter of taste. The major advantage of doing the route in the Leh-Manali direction is that this way there is a net loss of almost 5,000 ft, whereas doing it the other way we had to climb that without even the reward of a downhill whizz in return...