Cycle expedition- Ladakh: Manali to Leh Cycling

3 June 2004-24 June 2004

Ladakh, also known as the land of rocks and passes has always fascinated people. The barren landscape amidst the four mountain ranges; the Great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and the Karakoram, have heights of valleys ranging from 8000 to 15000 feet and peaks upto 25000 feet and passes going upto 20000 feet. This region also has the world’s highest glacier, Siachen. Apart from all this the thing which attracted us the most was that it has world’s highest roads. The world’s highest motorable pass, Khardung-la is in this region. Many foreigners have tried to cycle on these roads, but very few Indians have tried this earlier. And there came the idea to cycle on the roads touching heavens and Manali-Leh State highway was the best to gain most out of everything.

The idea first came to Sameer Kelkar aka Sam (my IIT MECH junior, equally crazy about treks and cycle), who had been cycling for years. He had contacted people from Leh who were ready to arrange things for us for cycling in the Nubra and the Indus valley in Ladakh, right in February. I decided to join him then. But somehow we came to know of who organizes tours and treks, who showed interested in organizing the Manali-Leh cycling at no profit-no loss. Opportunity walked to us!

In March-April we spent time deciding the iternary, booking tickets, deciding the budget, contacting persons in Manali and Leh who would be guiding us, cooking food for us in the way. After this was done, most important thing came was getting people for the cycling expedition. Many people showed interest, but not many remained. Finally we were a team of 5, myself, Sam, Prasanna (Sameer’s school friend), Ketan aka Kaka (Sameer’s Kaka) and Sherwin (Sameer met him on one of his treks). Finally this seeming to be set, we geared up our cycle, each had 15-18 geared cycle, mostly steel frame (heavy), only Sherwin and Kaka had light cycle. Transported the cycle (remember it was just before my last exam) to Andheri from where they were transported to Delhi and then by countryside bus to Manali, where they were stored in one of the countryside hotels.

So now our preparations were over, we had Tikam (who had trekked with well known mountaineer Harish Kapadia) as our jeep (support vehicle) driver cum guide, Tikku as our cook and Nema as his helper. Countryside provided us with tents, mats, sleeping bags, medical kit, walkie talkies, and oxygen cylinder. And a letter from Brig. Toley, Prasanna’s uncle, stating army people to help us in difficulty! What more is needed

Day 1: June 2, 2004

Early start for me for the trek, decided to stay at Sameer’s home at Villeparle, to avoid travel in rush the next day. Reached Sam’s home at midnight, some last minute discussions about the trip and a good sleep for a long journey ahead.

Day 2: June 3, 2004

After a sound sleep, refreshed and had breakfast at Udipi restaurant near Sam’s home. Sam at the last minute remembered that he had to pay his electric bill for the month. I paid the electric bill, while Sam packed his luggage and hurried to Bandra Terminus. Met Prasanna for the first time, was along with his dad (CEO Nirlep cookware). Alighted Paschim Express, Sherwin joined us at Borivali. Thus the journey finally began. 28 hours journey to Ambala! Thought the journey would turn boring, but the Sardarji in our coach had something or other to entertain us.

Day 3: June 4, 2004

Still in train. Seems to be a long journey. Sam and Prasanna busy reading novels and I left with sardarji! Reached Ambala at lunch time, had our lunch at the Dhabha outside the railway station. But still we had to wait for Kaka who was coming from Aurangabad, whose train would be arriving some 3 hours later. Ambala is too hot in June, but managed it with the hope of chill at Manali at night.

Kaka came at 1730, first impression, peaceful, jolly and happy person at the age of 35+ (my first guess, he ought to be a bachelor, which turned true later). Jeep for Manali had already come by that time. Put our luggages in the jeep and drove our way on the NH1 towards Manali (6700 feet). Had our dinner in the way. The travel gave us time to learn about each other.

It takes about 10 hours to reach Manali, but our jeep driver Naib Singh was again a great fellow, talkative and crazy about Mumbai. His talks about film industry, prostitutes on Juhu, Tarabai from Jaipur and all funny stuff entertained us. After a small traffic jam, couple of halts for our doses of caffine we finally reached Manali at 2 am. It took us a time to find hotel Kalpana, which was way up near the Hidimba temple, do the formalities and find a cozy bed. Slept by 0330 in morning.

Day 4: June 5, 2004

Not much to do on the day. Tried to get up late, but couldn’t sleep much, nice weather outside. Took charge of our transported cycle after breakfast. Transport hadn’t done much damage to them, as we had guessed. Took our cycle to Manali market. It took a lot of time to search for a cycle shop, finally got one. There is only one cycle shop near the bus stand. Serviced our cycle and they were now ready for the journey. Some shopping to complete the preparations, Italian food for dinner (Kaka’s fan of Italy except for Sonia 🙂 ).

Day 5: June 6, 2004

Today was again a rest day. Decided to do some practice. Except for Kaka, who went to see the art gallery at Naggar, we all took our cycles to Solang, to hotel Iceland from where we had to collect sleeping bags, mats, medical and oxygen cylinder. Started early, weather not good, might rain late. Solang is 17 kms from Manali and to defy our information, the road was climbing. In fact I had tough time cycling, constantly on the first (least torque) gear and usually on foot (zeroth gear!). Suddenly the run-away-from-the-trek syndrome took me. It always happened on my long treks that the feeling of ditching trek came to me. But even this time I kept my patience to enjoy lots of things ahead. It took us about 2 hours to reach Palchan some 10 kms from Manali. Here we met Tikku, the cook and had breakfast at his Dhabha. Then took road to Solang, which was again climbing. In the way, while I was dragging the cycle, 2 children who seemed to be attracted by cycle took charge of my cycle, and helped me dragging my cycle through all shortcuts possible. Relief to me!

Took a look at the items at hotel which seemed to be in check, left for Manali after an hour. Weather had worsened by that time, might rain anytime. Now the way was all the way down for next 17 kms and 1500 ft. Was fun coming downhill, no pedaling required just braking at times to control our speed. It rained heavily till we reached Manali. Rest for next of day, some shopping and again some continental delicacies for dinner.

Day 6: June 7, 2004

Today we ought to start according to our plans. But it was raining slowly and steadily all the night. Nobody wished to cycle in the rains right on the first day. We waited for rains to stop till afternoon but rains didn’t seem to stop. Finally called a pickup vehicle, dumped the cycles in that and decided to go to our next stop Marhi (10800 feet), 35 kms all the way up to the snow point just below Rohtang pass. This way we missed a lot of climb, of about 2000 feet. By this we also avoided the heavy traffic on the Rohtang route. Decided to stay at the PWD rest house. Did some acclimatization walk and some cycling practice. Heavy dinner and good sleep to get charged up for the climb of Rohtang tomorrow.

Day 7: June 8, 2004

Weather was cleaned up today. We could see fresh snow on the top of Rohtang pass and neighboring peaks. We could also see the Hanuman tibba ridge. Road to Rohtang top (13500 feet) could also be seen. Road steadily climbed up, making loops and turns about mountain side. Only problem was of heavy traffic. Decided to leave early before the Santra-and-Bandras (Kakas name to the foolish tourists who come there for siteseeing and make the place filthy) come. It was 17 kms to the top and some 3000 feet of climb. Did that in 3 and half hours. There were about 15-20 loops in the road to the top. However the top was dirty and too much crowded, my plans to play in the snow were ditched. We left for Khoksar village some 25 kms down from the top.

Again the way down was good, here the traffic of santra-and-bandras had stopped, road looped and turned all the way down to Khoksar. We came down as high as we went up! While having our tea at Khoksar, some DD Ladakh chap met us, who took our addresses at Leh, saying he will shoot us for his documentary 🙂 (which he never did).

We then left for Sissu(10200 feet), 18 kms along the river Chandra. The road along the river are very confusing, at times very near to the river and at times high up the river. We never understood why this was so, for we had to regularly climb up and down the road which was tiring. Camped at Sissu among the forest plantations near the river. On the other side of the river hanging waterfall could be seen and in distance we also saw the Sissu village. While others slept, I and Sherwin did some good photography of the region. Again heavy dinner and sleep for the next day.

Day 8: July 9, 2004

Our next stop today was Jispa (10500 feet), which in our information some 49 kms straight road (which turned out to be 61 and tiring ups and downs). Again after heavy breakfast we went along the river Chandra for 23 kms right upto village Tandi which was gradual down. Bhaga river meets the Chandra river at Tandi and flows as Chandra-Bhaga later. Road was then climbing steep for 8 kms right upto Keylong. KEylong is quite large town in the Lahaul valley. Got STD there.

Now the road from Keylong was again climbing with some rough patches in between. It was still 25 kms further from Keylong to Gemus and then few kms to Jispa. At Jispa too, we camped in the field near the river. Day was tiring and very longer than we expected. We did cycle for about 7 hours. Maggi after cycling and warm tents. We need some sound sleep today for the climb tomorrow. Also there were some news that the bridge nearby had collapased, might have to change plans a bit.

Day 9: June 10, 2004

After breakfast we left early, as we might have to spend time at the river near Darcha where the bridge had fallen. It was about 8 kms straight road to Darcha. Spend some time seeing the seen out there, jeep drivers were trying to make there way through the river, toed to the tractors, some drama going out in the cold water.

Our driver Tikam was reluctant to take risk with his jeep. Finally we shifted our luggage in the trailer of tractor and shifted to other side of the river. There after a long time, Tikam arranged for different jeep and driver for us.
Next stop was Patseo (12500 feet) which was 21 kms steady climb from Darcha. Roads were bad in between and weather too got bad the time we reached Patseo. Came to know that the metrological department at Patseo had forecasted subzero temperature at night. It’s going to be the coldest day so far! Again camped near the river, weather cleared up in late afternoon. Did some washing and then roamed about around the region. Treeline had ended and so one could see only soil, dull brown mountains and snow on the top. However, lots of birds could be seen here, most of them I could identify were rock thrush, also saw a small squirrel, first mammal apart from yaks and cows.

Day 10: June 11, 2004

Stomach upset toady 🙁 Today it would be going to be the toughest day so far. We had to reach Sarchu today some 62 kms ahead, with Baralacha-la (16500 feet) in between. We started early. Steady climb till Zing-Zing bar of 9 kms and some 1500 feet altitude gain. After that we had a steady never-ending climb till the end of the pass.

As the altitudes rise above the treeline, generally 10000 feet, the oxygen decreases, and muscles don’t get enough oxygen. It somehow becomes difficult to do cycling. This was happening with us. About 10 kms from the top, we were literally dragging our cycle on feet. Even we felt the weight of the cycle while dragging. Also these passes are very treacherous; it seemed that we had only few loops to go to the top, when we reached the end of the loop there ought to be few more loops, and so on. At an altitude about 15000 feet, things suddenly change as oxygen level further decreases. We were some 5-6 kms from the top; I suddenly felt dizzy and was on floor. It took time to recover myself. Sam and Sherwin were with me, Prasanna and Kaka were far behind, both having problems with altitude. I somehow felt I couldn’t cycle any further. Hence took a lift from the tanker till the top of pass.

Felt better at the top, Sam came after a long time. It took him an hour to do 4-5 kms. Kaka and Prasanna did well by taking a lift from tanker straight upto Sarchu. No point straining oneself, when half the journey was left. We had lunch of packed parathas at Baralacha-la. It was Sherwin’s birthday, and no better place to celebrate. At altitude of 16500 feet, with snow everywhere, memorable! Climb was about 30 kms from Patseo and further 32 left till Sarchu (15000 ft). But the road now was all the way down. Losing height is such a fun (only when brakes are in control, else it’s most dangerous).

After few kms, we seemed to have entered the Ladakh region. Dry desert looking mountains all around. Camped on the plains of Sarchu near the river. Today was a great day, did cycling from 0730 to 1800 and reached an altitude of 16500 feet. Need a good sleep. Since all were tired we decided to change our plans, take a rest day by going only 20 kms flat to Brandy Nalla.

Day 11: June 12, 2004

Was a bad night for Prasanna and me. Especially for Prasanna, who was suffering from oxygen problem, had breathlessness and mostly allergy to Dimox. His eyes were swollen and couldn’t see. He was shifted to nearby army medical camp and was put on oxygen. I couldn’t sleep the whole night too. Was breathless, had nausea, could hear my heart beats the whole night. The long journey yesterday was too stressful to my body. In morning felt quite weak, couldn’t even lift my sack. Talked to team and decided to leave with Prasanna to Pang and if possible further ahead to Leh.

Took our jeep to Pang (15500 feet) some 60 kms ahead. Had to cross the 21 loops of Gata, Nakela pass and Lachungla pass (17000 feet) in between. This definitely couldn’t be done by us in this state on cycle. We did the better thing not troubling our team and wisely leaving to Leh. Army doctor at Pang gave medicines to Prasanna and then we took a tanker from Pang to Leh. Tanker used to be slow on climbs. Had to cross one more pass Tanglang la (the worlds third highest motorable pass, again some 17000+ feet). Reached place called Upshi some 40 kms from Leh in the evening. Tanker driver had decided to stay there for the night, so we too did. Got a dormitory to stay at Upshi. Prasanna and I got the necessary rest.

Day 12-13: June 13-14, 2004

Took a bus from Upshi to Leh (11000 feet). Spend lot of time searching for Splash Adventures who would be organizing our stay at Leh. However finally booked some other guest house. Hot water bath was so refreshing after such a long time. Took rest for the day. Prasanna showed to army doctor, and at night did visit Brig. G.I. Singh whom his uncle had referred to. He seemed to have got better after shown to the doctor. I feel the illness was psychological more than physical. Spend time roaming in the streets of Leh. Infact I knew almost all roads of Leh by then and also the shortcuts! It was season time in Leh, lots of foreigners and occasional Indian tourist could be seen.

Day 14: June 15, 2004

Unexpected arrival of the team, they were expected to come tomorrow. But they skipped the stay at Debring where no water is available, and the climb of Tanglang-la, which reduced a day. Good to find some company again. Shifted to the booked guesthouse.

Day 15: June 16, 2004

We decided to visit the Pangong lake, some 170 kms from Leh. Booked a jeep for that. Had to cross Chang-la, the world’s second highest pass (17800 feet) in the way. The valley leading to Pangong lake was equally scenic. More desert like appearance of the Ladakh region could be seen. Finally after 4-5 hrs ride we reached the lake. The lake is 4 km wide and 150 kms long, however only 1/3 part of the lake is in India, rest lie in China occupied India.

The lake was really beautiful! All shades of Blue could be seen in the lake. And the blue colour came up more beautiful with background of ochre yellow mountains and the competing blue sky! Walked for 2-3 kms along the lake for about an hour and finally made our way back. It was one of the beautiful places I have seen, really memorable!

Day 16: June 17, 2004

Again a rest day. Sherwin and I visited the Shanti Stupa, nice view of the city from here. Could also see the loops of the road to Khardung-la which I and Sam would be trying tomorrow on cycle. Repaired our cycle for the climb tomorrow. Took rest, did shopping, spend time at German bakery bird-watching Israeli flycatchers and British whispering thrush (Sherwin and Prasanna know better!)

Day 17: June 18, 2004

I and Sam left early at 6. We had planned to cycle the top of world’s highest motorable pass- Khardung-la 18380 feet. Rest of people had planned to do the Nubra valley in jeep. We did about 20 kms and some 4000 feet of climb in 3 hours. But again the 15000 feet level took us. We couldn’t cycle any further, both Sam and me, waited for the jeep just before South Pullu, checkpoint 14 kms before top, so that we could load our cycles on the jeep. We couldn’t cycle up the top, but at top we couldn’t resist temptation coming down. Sam cycled all the way down 60 kms to Kholsar, while I, Sherwin and Prasanna took turns on the other cycle.

Nubra valley is all at 10000 feet and is the most beautiful region in Ladakh. Initially road is along Shyok river right from Kholsar to Diskit and Hunder. In between, Nubra river coming from Siachin Galaciers joins it. We took jeep ride to Diskit and further ahead to Hunder. At Hunder one can see the sand dunes, more desert like appearance. Was fun playing in sand dunes. Kaka showed his artistic skills on the sand. A civilian can’t go further ahead of Hunder, all the region is under Army afterwards. We came back to Diskit and stayed in the Guest house.

Day 18: June 19, 2004

Next day we started from Diskit, crossed over the Shyok river and went upstream of Nubra. This road leads right to the base of Siachin glaciers. However a civilian can go only upto Panamic, the northern most point a civilian can go in India. There are hot water springs over here. Bath in sulphur waters was again very refreshing.

We had finished visiting Nubra valley very early, hence decided to get back to Leh the same day. On the top of Khardung-la Sam and me took back the cycles. Road till South pullu, about 14 kms, was again bad due to melting snow and glaciers. Most of time, we were cycling through streams flowing on water and all stones. After that the road was excellent. Had to tighten the brakes in middle. Sam’s cycle brakes had failed, brake shoes worn out, he had to ditch cycling and sit in jeep. I did my whole 6000-7000 feet cycling down, about 40 kms. It took me about 2-3 hours. At times I was competing jeep with speeds of 40. But the turns and loops were deadly, whole valley below and fantastic view of mountain range ahead. Going down from Khardung-la was like topping on the trip-cake!

Day 19-20: June 20-21, 2004

Took rest, reading book, again roaming in the markets of Leh. Spending time at bakeries and restaurants in Leh. Visited Leh palace. Transported our cycles back to Bombay.

Day 21: June 22, 2004

Took early morning flight to Jammu. Security checks at Leh airport were really strict, they made Sherwin to write with his ballpen to check whether it was really a pen. Reached Jammu early morning. Jammu was really very hot after the cool trip. Stayed in hotel near railway station, roamed in Jammu, spent some time surfing, reading book and slept early.

Day 22-23: June 23-24, 2004

Again the boring 30+ hour train journey, wont talk much, but worth experiencing 😉 Finally, excellent trip, an expedition I must say. Manali-Leh route was superb. About 4 huge passes in between, crossing over the Himalayas to enter the Ladakh range. Differences in landscapes could be seen after every mile. Had a excellent group, whom I knew only Sameer initially, but the team worked really well. I must say we spend lots of time planning things and finally it worked for us, though on the expensive side. But it’s the cost we were willing to pay for cycling on world’s highest roads! Altitude and the roads were risky business but finally it was all adventure. As Helen Keller says: Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Finally theres something out there in Himalayas which I find very exciting. I always found peace out there. Himalayas helped me get out of my mental strain. Gods, if they are, must be staying at such a place.

So I am back from heavens, in the end NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!

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