A bicycling journey from Manali through Leh, to Khardungla

Dr Sharad Iyengar, Udaipur Cycling Club (UCC)

Two of us from Udaipur, Rajasthan, Kailash Jain and I undertook a 10 day bicycle trip from Manali to Leh and then to Khardungla, on the military route to the Siachen glacier. This turned out to be a unique lifetime experience, both in terms of the challenges of riding through the upper Himalayas, especially across a 200 km uninhabited zone spanning two states, and living a basic camp life without electricity or phone connections, at the mercy of cold that included a bout of heavy snowfall.

The initial day and half ride up to Rohtang pass took us through dense cedar forests, floating clouds and gurgling streams. However, it being a Sunday, we had to navigate heavy tourist traffic, often having to get off and gingerly roll our bicycles between stranded cars and military trucks to make progress. The other side of Rohtang pass, after steep descent into Lahaul Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, turned out to be a stark contrast — sunny weather, a fast flowing river, lush green farms, smooth roads with negligible traffic along a river valley, and cozy tented resorts (especially at Sissu and Jispa villages) frequented by numerous heavily padded motorbikers taking their Bullet bikes to Leh. I learnt that every Bullet owner aspires to take his steed to Leh (preferably along with a partner or spouse) as a “must do” activity. Picture postcard villages along the way made the place look like an Indian version of Switzerland, with higher snowy mountains. Its a pity that very few family tourists ventured beyond Rohtang pass to savour this unique place. Over two riding days, our bicycles allowed us to stay close to the sights, smells and sounds of the Chandra and Bhaga river valleys of Lahaul Spiti. There even is a temple town called Udaipur, 50 km beyond the turn at Tandi village. It connects further to Chamba and Dalhousie, but was unfortunately not on our route.

We departed from camp Jispa in the morning of day 4 and pedalled 5 km to Darcha, Himachal’s last village on the road to Leh. Ascending over Darcha, we entered an uninhabited zone of about 200 km, in which the road, vehicles and a few, small, dhaba clusters were the only evidence of civilization. I noted that trees and signs of cultivation had disappeared, you only saw earth, clouds and sky and felt the high winds. The earth — mountains, cliffs and crevices, had developed strange appearances from erosion — odd colours (we named a “Cappuccino hill”) and huge “sand castles” and “mud dwellings” etched into the steep landscape.

More about the dhaba clusters: at two to three points along the desolate road, we found groups of 3-4 dhabas (roadside eateries) made of stone walls and plastic sheets, offering simple hot food and a bed for the night to truckers and bikers. They had odd names like Zingzing Bar (no zing or bar there) and Whisky Nala (local legend mentioned a whisky laden truck that overturned and tipped whisky into a rivulet), but they were nothing more than Himalayan highway pit stops offering relief in the middle of nowhere. We camped in their vicinity, pitching our own tents and cooking our own meals. The uninhabited zone also meant that there was no electricity or mobile connectivity. We spent 5 days relying on LED lights at night, disconnected from families, friends and the real, busy world. This took some getting used to — we’d go to bed at 8.30 pm without looking at mobile screens because they were silent…

This zone also had the most severe climbs — we had to pedal up four passes, Baralacha at 16000 feet, Nakeela at 15000 odd feet, Lachungla at 16100 and Tanglang at over 17000 feet. Crossing each meant toiling up a series of hairpin bends and ascents (some damaged by snow and landslides) over 20 to 30 km at a stretch, at a snail’s pace. This was the grunt and sweat part of the journey (yes, the body heated immensely in the cold, needed more fluids and electrolytes), with human muscle propelling a heavy, reluctant machine over never ending curves, ever higher and higher.

Camps and camaraderie: Spending 10 days away from work, family and home, pursuing the singular occupation of bicycling a route that only toughened vehicles otherwise hurried through within the shortest possible time, had to be an odd, idiosyncratic activity. Among the team of 4 riders (then 3, when one pulled out after 3 days), “together time” was therefore important. We generally rode together within 1-2 km, chatting on the plain portions, struggling up the climbs and concentrating on descents. We hoisted the national flag on Aug 15, and made friends with similar riders on the road, including a pair from Japan.

Our support team comprised two vehicles with drivers, a cook, two helpers and a bicycle troubleshooter (see group picture), all capably led by Shailu, our young team leader. We were treated daily to tea, yoga, breakfast, mid morning snack, lunch roll, stretching exercises, late afternoon tea and pasta, evening soup followed by early dinner, all fresh, light and delicious, served with a smile and cheerful conversation. This looks like a lot, but then, we were burning a lot of fuel. There were kitchen and dining tents at each camp, and 3 sleeping tents (too small and short to even stand up in). And a pretty, solo orange (see pic), odourless, waterless toilet tent covering a deep trench, wherein each user covered the done deed using soil piled nearby — rather hygienic and eco-friendly.

After a warm day-7 afternoon descending 40 km of vast “Morey plains”, we camped on the side of Tso Kar lake. Rain commenced late evening, and surprisingly went silent by night — we awoke to a carpet of snow that covered everything and paused our ride that morning. For a change, bicycles and riders drove in a vehicle across icy Tanglangla pass that was covered in two feet of snow and had poor visibility. It snowed on the same day as heavy rains and landslides in the lower mountains — we had to wait a day to reach Leh along the banks of the Indus river. I was glad to see the river that gave India its name, it now flows only in the Leh region of the country. 

We waited at Lato for the road to be cleared and set off the next morning. As we descended along the highway, the greenery increased — trees, farms and villages reappeared along the 80 km route towards Leh. We crossed the rapid Indus river at Upshi, passed by busy military stations, paused for a while at the Thiksey and Choglamsar monasteries and then finally laboured up the last 8 km stretch into Leh city, altitude 11,500 feet.

Early next morning we set off on the Siachen road towards Khardungla. We made good progress as the road rapidly and steadily climbed over long ridges and 4-5 hairpin bends to about 15,300 feet. At this point I unexpectedly began to experience fatigue, nausea and dizziness, likely a result of hypoxia. Over another 4 difficult km, I realized that dizziness and disorientation could compromise safety in negotiating truck and bike traffic. I reluctantly decided to stop riding at South Pullu, 14 km short of Khardungla, and continued up in a vehicle. Fortunately, my friend and co-rider Kailash Jain rode smoothly without problems all the way past the snowline and reached the cloudy, windswept pass at 18000 feet! This was remarkable, given that less than half of those who pedal up Khardungla, eventually reach the top. Having recovered my breath after a while, I pedalled 37 km all the way downhill from Khardungla to Leh, navigating the rough and broken road above the snowline.

Our bicycle trip from Manali through Leh to Khardungla had stretched us to the limits of effort and endurance, yet it allowed us intimate contact with a desolate, beautiful land and its friendly people. The silent, snow capped Himalayas towered solemnly above us on all days, exuding a spiritual peace that endured well after the ride was over. We had traveled 500 km across varying terrain over 10 days on sheer manual power, yet each day’s journey had proven to be a destination in itself!

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