A Trip: Cycling the Manali-Leh Highway
I think it'll be a bit more humane to just include some highlights and a few reasonable shots rather than grind through the whole thing...apart from anything else, it's better to just have an idea and do one's own trip rather than live vicariously. Click on a thumbnail to see a bigger version of the same shot.
Thursday 23/8/01. We left the luxury of Manali's Mayflower Hotel at 07:30, on Thursday 23rd August 2001, not knowing how long it would be until we got another hot shower. (It turned out to be only three days, so not too bad). Stopped at 07:30:30 for five minutes while Niall fiddled with his brakes, and we were on the road in earnest. Through the scabby bit of lower Manali, where people are clearly poorer, and the road is covered in mud and bits have slid into the river from all the monsoon rains, and then we were climbing, and stayed so until the end of the ride. At first there were a few villages on the way, but these quickly gave way to trees and we were climbing up through open mountain forest. We met up with a couple of cyclists from Hungary, who didn't seem to have planned their trip much-they asked us where the next petrol station was so they could buy some for their stove! They thought it would be like Europe, with fuel every few miles. We gave them about 200 mls of ours to keep them going, but after this day we never saw them again, so either they steamed way ahead of us or they choked and died by the roadside without anyone noticing when they ran out of food...
As you can tell from the pictures, Manali and the Southern side of the Rohtang Pass is still in the monsoon region, and although warm, the climb was misty at times. Luckily no rain though, unlike the day before. At the Rohalla Falls half way up there was a busload of Indian tourists having their photos taken in traditional garb, but when we turned up we got treated like minor celebrities, and they wanted their pictures taken with us as well. We arrived at Marhi about 1pm, just in time for lunch, stuffed our faces and decided to stay at one of the guest rooms there. I'd had a minor headache the last few miles, but the food cleared that in no time. Later on I came to realise that for me staying hydrated was the main thing in avoiding altitude headaches. We'd done just over 23 miles, and climbed about 4,000 ft.
During lunch the Hungarians arrived, and decided to bash on all the way to the top today, and down the other side to camp at Gramphu. We said "Good Luck, see ya", and off they went. Within half an hour the sky had closed in and it was bucketing down, while we were in our cosy 75 rupee/head room. Would've been a pretty miserable ascent-cold, soaking wet, and another 800 m of altitude to gain before some serious windchill on the way down. In the local language, "Rohtang" means something like "piles of dead bodies", because its unpredictable weather patterns catch people napping with serious consequences quite often...
Friday 24/8/01. Today we were up at 6 again, having gone to bed pretty early. That ended up being the usual plan here, as there's not a big pub and club scene along the Highway. It gets dark-you go to bed, it's light: get up. It was a beautiful day now, none of yesterday afternoon's rain, and after omelettes for breakfast we set off up the rest of the Rohtang Jot.Up towards the top, the road gets pretty poor, basically just packed mud with rocks in it like a Cadbury's Fruit and Nut bar. Except made with stones, not raisins and nuts.
Over the other side, and a 22 km descent down to the Chandra River. Speeds weren't outrageous on the descents, because although long, the gradients are quite low as the roads are designed for badly-tuned lorries to be able to climb. A good laugh, though. The top of the Rohtang Pass marked the end of Manali's wet monsoon climate, and on the other side of the mountains it is much drier, and also much more "mountainous" in appearance, with many fewer trees. Turning left away from Spiti at the bottom, we rode along the valley floor for about 10 miles to Khoksar where we had lunch at a dhaba and registered at the Police checkpoint. The bloke didn't realise our middle names were such, and so none of us had his surname put down in the Government's book. We didn't bother to disabuse him.
We crossed the raging torrent of the river at Khoksar, and continued slightly downhill along the other bank for the short and easy ride to Sissu. Halfway, I lost a bolt from my front pannier rack, shaken out by the rough roads, and while I desperately tried to fix it as fast as I could we were surrounded by a crowd of raggedy kids from nowhere shouting "Give me chocolate!" and trying to blag sweets off us. They were persistent little bastards, opening people's bags and so on, and as soon as I was done we steamed off. We thought for a minute they'd got Damian, but he eventually made an appearance.
At Sissu we got a large room in a traditional Lahauli farmhouse: big and comfortable with a fantastic mountain view through the window; no hot water. The cold running water was a pipe in the garden, so one washed outside, and being fed by mountain streams, was cold! The man whose house it was was a great bloke, and spoke a fair bit of polite English. Did us a great dal, curry and rice dinner.
Saturday 25/8/01. As today was a Saturday, it was also a "chloroquine day", so breakfast was a gruesome cocktail of paludrine, chloroquine and diamox, with a multivitamin tablet for pudding. Barely enough water left to wash it all down. As usual, the day was already a real scorcher, so we grabbed cokes from the tiny shop over the road before setting off-they really tasted peculiar by now, as we'd been on diamox for three days.
Cycling along the valley was a blast: the agriculture is very good here and everyone is happy, and gives you a wave or says "hello" (or, equally friendly, "bye-bye!") as you cruise past. I took a couple of shots of the mountains alongside the valley with the aim of converting them to black-and-white to do an Ansell Adams-style rip-off later on. We reached Tandi to find that it is actually about 2000 ft higher than we'd thought: great, as it meant that instead of a brutally steep climb up to Keylong, it'd be a breeze. Before that though, a breakfast stop at the dhaba was called for, and turned out to be a real score. Omelette for breakfast of course, but with tomatoes, chili and onion. On the easy ride to Keylong (only 800 ft climb, shallow gradient), there were several mountain optical illusions, where the road looks as if it is climbing yet actually goes downhill, or vice versa. Keylong itself turned out to be quite the thriving metropolis, and since it was the last outpost of civilisation before Leh a week away, we took advantage: taking a suite (!) at the swishest hotel in town, with hot showers, flush toilet, and even bogroll provided. Three quid each: living large, no doubt.
We took the following day off from cycling, walking down to the river and up the other side of the valley to visit the pretty local village of Kardong, a labyrinth of narrow mud-floored corridors between the stone farmhouses, and the Kardong Monastery where we met one of the monks and some Buddhist nuns.
Monday 27/8/01. Back on the road today, cycling to Patseo. The others had been taking the piss as I was usually last to be ready to go in the morning, so I sneakily packed my kit last night and was thus good to go immediately today. Ha! Showed them. Setting off early, we already had a mile under our belts by 7:30, riding up a fertile valley set, as per usual, in fantastic mountain scenery. We met another cyclist: Klaus, from Germany. He'd come from Spiti to join the road north of the Rohtang Pass, and was now cycling to Leh, like us, self-supported. Despite being retired, in his sixties, he was incredibly fit and we ended up meeting up several times over the next few days. We rode on to Jispa, where there is a large hotel, to get breakfast, and there were more Western cyclists here too: a group of 14 mostly American mountain bikers were doing the same ride as a supported group, with a coach to move their kit. They were taking today off, many bussing back to Keylong to do their email, etc. We ended up meeting these guys as well a few times during the trip. It was interesting to see different people's approaches: self-supported v. supported, MTB v. road, etc. The Americans turned out to be extremely high-tech in their approach, with GPS, micro video cameras, laptops, and a digital voice recorder to complement their suspended titanium mountain bikes and Camelbaks. We had paper books and biros, and cameras with chemical film to record our impressions of the trip, and non-suspended steel bikes with normal bottles as transport. Takes all sorts.
We carried on to Darcha, where the 2,000 ft climb to Patseo, our projected stop for the day and the last place with accommodation on this side of the 16,000 ft Baralacha La, starts in earnest. The road started to get poorer again, becoming unsurfaced, then dusty, and then rocky and rutted. There is another police checkpoint at Darcha, so we signed on here and after waiting for a mule train to cross the bridge, rode on to Patseo.
The road to Patseo climbs constantly, and started to get really bad. The terrain also became much more arid. Near Patseo, we came across groups of Bihari roadbuilders working on the road, melting drums of tar and breaking and moving rocks to foundation the road, all by hand: no JCBs here. The wheels sounded like Velcro as we cycled, sticking to the melting tar in the heat. Turning up at Patseo, the entire place of three or four corrugated iron buildings looked deserted. We dumped our bikes outside and walked in, shouting "hello!", where we found four bored soldiers dossing on their bunks. They were very welcoming, and sat us down and poured tea before even asking a question-it must be a dead boring posting for the day's excitement to be the arrival of four cyclists covered in crap from the road. They got the caretaker to open the HPPWD guest house for us, and that's where we stayed-four beds in the house, cold water, and we cooked our own food on our petrol stove. Klaus arrived later, and camped in his tent nearby.
Tuesday 28/8/01. Agenda: (1) Climb Baralacha La, 16,057 ft. (2) Camp at Sarchu, 40 miles from Patseo. Item (1) turned out to be the harder one. Up at five (!) as we had a serious climbing day pencilled in, but faffing about meant that we weren't moving until after half seven. We passed the main army camp a couple of miles past Patseo, and then started climbing the rough road up the Baralacha La, stopping at Zing Zing Bar for a bite of fruit and nuts more because it had a name than because it has anything to offer (it hasn't). The entire pass is arid, no vegetation at all with huge great fields of loose rocks and scree on the way up. The more sheltered stretches look like the inside of a quarry. Which made it all the more remarkable that meeting us coming down was a huge herd of sheep and goats, over a thousand animals, and their herders. Given the lack of food for either man or beast here, it seemed completely reasonable when some of the goats stopped to eat the prayer flags on the bridge.
As I climbed higher, I started to feel worse, and then terrible. Appalling headache, cycling slower (not that we cycled that fast to start with), and just to add their tuppence-worth of joy to the experience, just below the top my guts started churning about as well. Having reached the top, I lay down on the ground for ten minutes, and my heart rate was 87 bpm-twice what it normally is at rest. I thought I was having a major dose of AMS, but later realised that I'd drunk barely half a bottle of water on the entire climb, like a complete moron, and think it was at least mostly due to dehydration. On later climbs, even bigger and higher ones, I had no problems so long as I forced myself to keep drinking all the way up.
So when it was time to go down the other side, I thought, "right, let's lose some altitude fast and get my head back" and steamed off down the northern side of the Baralacha La. Unfortunately this wasn't a great idea on a road as bad as this, and I crashed about 200 metres below the summit when I got herded off the road by a dodgy patch of road. So after adding a mild dose of road rash and a whacked knee to my other list of joys, we carried on down the hill at a more pedestrian pace. We reached another ford, but this one was a bit more serious-instead of just riding through, it was a bit of a rushing torrent, and one couldn't see the bottom which was floored with both smooth and rough rocks of various sizes. So we switched to sandals to keep our boots dry, took the bags off the bikes and moved everything across on foot. Despite being only about 15 ft wide, the water was so cold that feet were agony by the time one got to the other side.
After stopping at the "Everest" dhaba 10 km below the summit for very spicy noodles, we were riding on flatter road to Sarchu. Again, the terrain changed: throughout the ride we never had two days that were the same. First we passed mountains with thousands of different shades of brown streaking through them, and then came to a flat valley with mountain sides leading to Sarchu. To our left, the river wound its way along the valley floor, with remarkable crenellations eroded into the bank wall. Just before Sarchu at another rough patch, Damian crashed when he got his foot stuck and fell off the road, luckily not down a precipitous bit. Fortunately though he landed on his head, a part of his body he rarely uses, so no harm done.
We camped at the tent camp at Sarchu, eating in a dhaba made from an ex-army parachute and sitting on rocks covered with carpets, rather like a Mongolian yurt.
Wednesday 29/8/01. Bit of a shocker, today. Niall had drawn a profile similar to the one on this website based on data culled from the various guidebooks, and it predicted an easy and largely flat 30-mile cycle to the foot of the Lachalang La, which we planned to climb tomorrow. The first 16 miles were indeed a breeze, perfect road, ever-so-slightly downhill and then the road turned right, away from the river. A sign said "21 Loops of Gata, 15,030 ft" and then the road set off zig-zagging Alpe d' Huez-style up the canyon wall. A fantastic little climb, although unexpected. However, at the top, instead of the gradual descent back to about the same altitude we'd just left to reach the bottom of the Lachalang La we expected, the road kept on climbing. Again the terrain had changed-we were now amongst brown and orange mountains, in a high altitude desert: no water, no grass, the only vegetation scrubby, low-lying bushes. Water was looking like it might be a bit of a problem, but we were so far from the Lachalang La and Pang camp on the other side that going back down to camp at the river at the bottom of the Gata Loops was not an option. So we bashed on, blagging the odd litre of water from soldiers or truckers we met on the road. It was getting later, towards mid-afternoon, burning sun. We met a couple of German cyclists who told us that after the Nakee La pass a few km ahead the road dropped again to Whisky Nullah, where we decided to camp. These two were clearly nutters, as they had already cycled the Manali-Leh highway in the direction we were going, sold their stove and other camping kit, and then turned round to cycle straight back in six days...even allowing for the fact that they were presumably now acclimatised to altitude, wow. At the top of the Nakee La we met an American cycling couple who warned us that there is no water at Whisky Nullah but there is a stream a km or two before the bottom on the way down. At the stream, which turned out to be about as strong as a kitchen tap left on, we filled every bottle we had, for a total of about 15 litres between the lot of us. After iodination and filtration, it turned out to be just enough for dinner that evening, breakfast and the ride to Pang.
Just below the summit of the Nakee La, we were joined by a red-brown dog who ran with us down to Whisky Nullah. So we christened him "Whisky", rather originally, we thought. The American couple said he had joined them at Pang, about 30 km away and accompanied them all the way to Whisky Nullah. We gave him some food and he slept outside my tent door all night, on what was a bitter night-camping at over 15,000 ft it was very cold, and all our water had frozen in the bottles by morning.
Thursday 30/8/01. Absolutely freezing when we got up. Annoyingly, everything at breakfast seemed to cool before we had time to eat or drink it because it was so cold. We packed up as much as we could, but had to go and stand on the slope in the sun and wait for the mountain shadow to crawl across the valley to our tents before they would dry out enough to pack and our hands would unfreeze enough to strike them. And then we set off up the Lachalang La, second highest pass on the Manali-Leh highway at 16,616 ft. Whisky was still there, and after a quick drink of condensation from a puddle, ran with us. He must be incredibly fit, since his lifestyle seems to involve running back and forth between the Nakee La and Pang with any cyclists who happen to be around for company- a distance of 30 km with two 16,000 ft passes en route. After just 4.5 km the road became bad again, just a long slog of a climb with a "surface" of loose rocks, rutted into trenches by the wheels of lorries and buses. This was probably the worst stretch of road on the entire trip, and looked as if it had never been tarmacced at all. Calling it a "highway" was completely taking the piss. Because it was so bad, I was forced to use my lowest gear-a 24/32 wall climber-simply to get enough torque to roll over the top of the rocks. With their wider hybrid tyres rolling more easily over the loose stones, Colin and Niall were first to the top of the pass, and Damian, who had just 28 mm road touring tyres, was a bit further back still. Niall said he enjoyed this climb much more than the Gata loops, which I think provides clinching proof that he is a complete pervert. Now I think about it, he did take what seemed like an awful lot of photographs of goats during this trip as well...
Over the top of the Lachalang, and through a miniature inferno of Bihari roadbuilders cracking rocks and boiling tar, so hopefully in future years this stretch won't be quite so dreadful. In a country which offers a wide selection of crap ways of making a living, being a Himank roadbuilder must be up there: living for several months at up to 18,000 ft in a tarpaulin tent with no opportunity to wash, let alone a source of entertainment, breaking rocks by hand and breathing in molten tar fumes all day for 80 rupees a day. A fantastic lifestyle.
The road, still pretty bad but nowhere near the league of a few km ago, changed again: now we were riding down a steep-sided gorge with the river to our right, heading for Pang. At the other side, the rocks had again been eroded into bizarre shapes, like towers for fairy castles, or perhaps houses from the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars. Cycling is really the way to see this country: these rocks went unnoticed by the majority of the passengers on the bus from Leh to Manali on our return, and they really missed out.
At Pang, we had a late lunch and then stayed at the "Sun and Sand Hotel"-another Bedouin-style parachute tent. We washed ourselves and our clothes in the glacial river, and ran into Klaus and the American group again. Pang is a bit skanky, as a lot of the rubbish isn't disposed of properly, but just dumped by the river. Horrible to see, and it meant that we had to carry a lot of our own rubbish over the Moray Plains and Taglang La as we couldn't bin it here.
Friday 31/8/01. Quite an easy day today, so we made the most of it. Immediately out of Pang, we climbed a short series of hairpins up to the flat top of the Moray Plains, and then crossed the plains to camp some 10 miles below the summit of the Taglang La itself, the highest pass on the Manali-Leh road at about 17,500 ft. This was where the climb to the top of the pass really started in earnest. Klaus and the Americans branched off early to camp by the Tso Kar lake closer to Pang and further from the Taglang La. Another day, another terrain change: the plain is like one imagines Mongolia to be, very flat and open with mountains at the edges. Again, cycling was the best way to see it: a motorist would not get any sense of the vast open space, but walking would be too slow and would probably get dull in the two or three days it would take to cross. Because it is so open, it was very windy but again we were lucky and the wind was with us for most of the ride.
We camped "wild" again, having brought all the water we needed from Pang as there is no water on the plain itself, or indeed until one reaches the river on the far side of the Taglang La at the bottom. This was our second night of high camping above 15,000 ft, but it didn't get as cold as at Whisky Nullah.
Saturday 1/9/01. We got up, had breakfast, depitched the camp and packed the bikes up as per usual. As we were finishing, a nomad herding sheep and goats on the plain turned up, said "hi" and tried to blag as much stuff as he could. Quite amusing, though, as he was very amiable. He was very taken with my nice Sigg aluminium fuel bottles, but he couldn't have 'em-we gave him a coke bottle of water and another full of petrol, and he had to be content with that. Ten marks for effort, though. Then Klaus and the Americans passed us on their ascent of the pass, and five minutes later we were on the road after them. There were nearly 20 cyclists on the Taglang La that morning, and it looked more like a broken-up cycle race than one of the most isolated roads in the world. My technique today was to keep drinking to avoid any headaches, and it worked a treat-I finished both 800 ml bottles in the ten miles ascent to the top, and didn't get a debilitating headache as on the Baralacha La. Indeed, Colin and I seemed to be on really good form, and riding together we chewed our way methodically through the "field" of other riders; quite satisfying really as we were loaded and the others weren't.
As we arrived at the top of the pass, there was a brief flurry of snow, as befits the second highest pass in the world, and we wrapped up and spent a fair bit of time mucking about on the top, taking photos and so on. Then we set off down the other side, 3,000 ft of switchbacks to the river at the bottom. At the bottom of this fun descent, we came to a minor traffic jam of buses and other vehicles, where a landslide had blocked the road. A bulldozer, about the first we had seen on the ride, was just finishing moving the last of the dirt out of the way and then we were allowed through, riding in a dust storm with visibility of about 5 metres for a couple of kilometres. We stopped at the first dhaba we came to for tea with the Americans who'd also come down the pass, which happened to be playing loud dance music. Obviously a very hip dhaba, as most of them don't put any kind of sounds on at all.
We were now really in Ladakh proper, and the cycling was constantly downhill from the summit of the Taglang La all the way to the end of the day's ride at Upshi-almost a forty mile downhill! Again the landscape changed, and between Rumptse, the first village from the Taglang La, and the turning at the Indus towards Upshi, everything became almost Tolkienesque, wildly unlike anywhere any of us had been before. The valley was irrigated by the river and fertile, with pretty villages and Stupas dotted along it. As if in a story, the women even sang as they worked in the fields.
The walls of the gorge were mostly of red sandstone, with other strata of a green rock running through it, and then the whole had been rotated through 90 degrees by some geological folding event so that the lines of the strata were now almost vertical: amazing. We met an English couple planning on cycling the road the other way, so tomorrow they would be climbing the Taglang La from this side and going over towards Pang. A tough ride-a lot of climbing, and no water for about 50 miles. They said they had the capacity to carry 20 litres between the two of them, but of course that weighs 20 kg. Hope it went alright!
Upshi, on the Indus, had a room available and food, but was a bit of a dirty place. Camping a little further up the gorge as Klaus, the English couple and the yanks did is probably a better idea in retrospect.
Sunday 2/9/01. Got up and after the regulation plain omelette and chapatis for breakfast-you can really get sick of those things when they turn up every day-we set off for Karu. After using the riverbank as a bog, there was not really any point in attempting to wash properly: after yesterday's dust storm and not having been able to wash on the Moray Plains, only one thing was going to do: a real, live shower. So we were all looking forward to reaching Leh today. Again the scenery changed-whatever else, one couldn't accuse this ride of being samey. After Upshi everything quickly became very dry, incredibly bright sun and the only greenery was where the Indus was used to irrigate crops and trees. It was very peculiar to be riding down a road with lush fields on one side, and bare earth and rock desert on the other. Even the villages looked almost Mexican. At Karu we branched off for a little detour to visit the Hemis monastery, which turned out to be up a 1,000 ft climb hidden in a gorge several kilometres away from the Indus. With our fully laden bikes, it was quite a savage climb as this small side road hadn't been designed to keep gradients to a minimum so that trucks could handle them like the main road. Hemis itself was impressive though: a pretty little mountain village with the monastery above it. There was a lot of restoration work going on at Hemis, but it was still a very worthwhile trip. The temples themselves are beautiful, and a great view of the village and valley is afforded from the roof terrace.
We had lunch by the monastery, and unanimously agreed to just bash on straight for Leh and not make anymore side trips-we could visit stuff from Leh, but everyone was really in the mood for a decent bed and shower. The road to Leh was very bright and hot, and the few patches of shade where the road went by irrigated trees were very welcome. The route was interesting though, passing monasteries such as Shey and Tikse and fields of ruined stupas. As we got closer to Leh, the road started climbing again and the last few km into the city were, frankly, a bit horrible: extremely hot and dry, with hundreds of lorries on the road and a seemingly endless stream of army camps along the roadside. However, we finally reached Leh at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, having completed our 500 km ride! We stayed at the Asia guest house in Changspa, which was pleasant and welcoming, and (sometimes) had hot showers.