“Chalega?” “Pakka bata. Cycle khareedta hoon.”
I had been dreaming about cycling the Manali-Leh route for a while. I had heard a lot of stories from people who went there and came back transformed. Their voice would change and their eyes would sparkle, in an almost mystical fashion, as they spoke about their experiences. I needed to know what it was that provoked such emotions. And there was only one way to find out.
Fast forward to June 20th and we were off from Manali.
“Yaar, ho payega apne se?” “Karna hi padega. Bohot logon ko bata chuka hoon.”
Chapter 1: Rohtang
We started a little late partly due to apple cider from the previous night and partly due to a tire-pump-valve mismatch. The sky was clear so we were quickly warmed up. First two days were going to be fully uphill till we crossed our first pass — Rohtang.
My gear shifting concepts were a little rusty and I kept adjusting the height of my seat. Things kept getting smoother as we put kilometers between us and civilization. The roar of Beas kept getting fainter, and buildings became fewer and farther in between. At Kothi, where we stopped for lunch, we got talking to a Manali-Rohtang taxi driver. He looked at his watch and told us we had no chance of reaching Marhi — our planned destination — before sunset and that the next “town”, Gulaba was just a police checkpost. No food or stay over there. So we got some food packed and reached Gulaba just before dark. We pitched our tent in the campsite of Nepali construction-workers. Our tent was the last towards the valley, next to a solitary tree, overlooking the lush green Kullu valley and the cloud-covered mountains that surrounded it.
The next day was not a sunny one. The clouds had covered the sky and although the views of the valley were astonishing we were worried. With 30 long kilometers separating us and Rohtang, we had no time to appreciate the beauty. At Marhi we were already surrounded by clouds, so we didn’t get to stop too long for lunch. In a couple of kilometers it started to rain. Fortunately it was a Tuesday, so the pass was closed for snowball-flinging tourists. The absence of traffic, however, didn’t make it any less tiring.
Fueled by expectations of wai-wai at the top and sunshine in the rain shadow I kept pedaling through the fog, without letting water-splashing trucks dampen my spirits. Little did I know that I was going to be wrong on both counts. But I was too cold and hungry to feel disappointed and I started the downhill without stopping. The next town, Khoksar was 20 km away and the road kept getting worse with every turn of the wheel. I can’t say if my teeth were chattering more because the rough road or the cold but stopping was just not an option now. I tried to draw motivation from speeches of our water-polo coach that Crunchy and I were recounting two nights back. Soon enough, I reached Khoksar, having cycled over my first ever mountain pass. The clouds had started to clear and we had good reason to treat ourselves with some boiling hot thukpa.
Chapter 2: Baralacha La
The thukpa shop lady advised us not to stay at Khoksar, and to go instead to Sissu. She also promised it was all downhill. So we went there, found a homestay (we had no energy to pitch tents) and left for Keylong the following morning, after a walk around the town and parathas on the banks of Chandra. The road was fine in the beginning but very soon it became rough and dusty. At Tandi, where Chandra and Bhaga rivers meet and continue as Chandrabhaga, the rough stretch ended the road went up along the Bhaga river.
At Keylong, after having an amazing thali at Jammu dhaba for lunch, we decided to hike to Khardang gompa, on the other side of the river. The trail descended into the valley till it reached a bridge over the Bhaga river and then climbed up. The temple is very quiet and serene and has a large terrace in the front looking at the town pasted over the green mountains across, a gushing Bhaga below and a bunch of snow-clad peaks on the horizon on either side. The monks are really good at picking spots for monasteries. We left before sunset and had dinner accompanied by a bottle of chhang at a nameless local dhaba.
After Keylong the road kept going up and vegetation got thinner. Barren mountains were not uncommon now and there were stretches of rocky-dusty terrain which would be impossible to find in the Kullu valley. There was still plenty of green to be seen near the riverbank in the valley and next to the streams trickling from the snowy peaks but the change in the character of the landscape was hard to miss.
A signboard saying “Check your brakes” lifted my spirits. The climb was over for the day and it was a steep downhill to Jispa now. The road was along the river again and the valley was wide. We found a campsite that belonged to a mountaineering institute and the talkative caretaker spoke to us about his village separated from Jispa by two mountain ranges, his recently acquired mountain bike and his countless treks and expeditions that resulted from his association with the institute. He advised us to visit the monastery which is a one hour hike from the town. The building was in shambles but the silence and the views of the valley made it worth our while.
After two days of smooth sailing testing times awaited us. Zingzingbar was 35 km uphill and at a higher altitude than Rohtang. And the milestones were wrong. The Z-Z bar they knew about was a construction site without food or a place to camp and the real Z-Z bar was a long, tiring, windy and cold 7 km uphill. And it was also getting dark. Our ignorance had cost us a lot of time and hence daylight and warmth. However, there was only one way to go and that was onward. It took me almost an hour and a half to reach the people-friendly Z-Z bar where we crashed in a huge tent with beds, maggi and rajma-chawal.
The next day was the pass day. To beat bad weather we started early. The terrain was rocky and absolutely barren. Grass that could be seen before Z-Z bar had disappeared. The road slowly wound upwards in long bends. The milestones were blank. I had no idea how far I had come or how far I had yet to go. I kept pedaling, inching towards the icy peaks that now appeared to be much closer.
Niraj had warned me about the two beautiful lakes that we would encounter on the climb. The first, Deepak taal was small and probably shallow. The water slowly turned from transparent along the edges through a range of greens, violets and browns to a deep blue towards the middle. Behind the lake was a valley that kept getting narrower till it reached an ice-covered mountain from where the stream feeding the lake probably originated. Suraj taal, the second, took me by surprise. It was not unexpected — I knew that it would appear at the end of a certain loop. What was unexpected was the magnificence of its sight. With a backdrop of mighty white mountains the lake changed its blues with the movements of clouds. The icy wind tried to freeze the tears rolling down my cheeks as I tried to soak up the grandeur with unblinking eyes. Half a circumference away, Baralacha La waited.
Chapter 3: Nakee La — Lachung La
Post-Baralacha-La terrain was strange — almost post-apocalyptic. The sun had acquired a piercing intensity. Even looking at the mountains around hurt my eyes. There was a rivulet that originated from the pass along which there was some grass-like growth but everything else was completely barren. We didn’t want to stop at Bharatpur for long. Sarchu was 30km away. The steep part of the downhill was bad but about 20km before Sarchu there was a sudden transformation in the surroundings.
The road sloped downward at an almost imperceptibly shallow angle and it was flanked by a wide flat grassy valley. On the left the river had carved a canyon through the sandy plains and the patterns on its walls made no sense. The mountains were red. A tail wind made the crossing of this plain a delight. We kept going and the landscape stretched on till we reached Sarchu and found a lady who would give us food and space to pitch tents in her backyard. We had entered Ladakh.
The next day was another pass day. The first twenty-odd kilometers were through rolling terrain before we reached the foot of gata loops. These twenty-one part-dirt-part-tar bends stacked vertically stood looked down upon us as we started the climb for Nakee La. The sun was now above us and a strange halo surrounded it. The sky was gray and clouds were few. I lost count of the loops after 12 or 14 as they kept getting longer. Then suddenly a yellow stone told me gata loops were over but there were no signs of the pass. Must be around the corner, I thought. Turned out the pass was another 6 kilometers uphill. It was past lunchtime and I had finished my last Snickers bar several kilometers below. It took me two hours to haul a tired body to the pass.
Whiskey Nullah is a rest point midway between Nakee La and Lachung la. The stream the place is supposedly named after was not much more than a trickle. Glaciers had melted quickly this year. The tent where we had food was run by an old couple and their daughter-in-law. They were pleasantly surprised when we asked them to make butter tea. We spent the evening talking about the dreadful afternoon climb and the life-saving qualities of Snickers, observing the old man as he spun his hand-held prayer wheel while chanting Buddhist mantras, and playing with his tiny granddaughter.
The night was cold and a cloudy morning followed. Lachung La was just 5 km uphill but we had to start soon to avoid bad weather. Visibility was not great on the climb and we did face some light snow, but the short uphill was not much trouble and I soon found myself at the top. Just one more pass now stood between me and Leh.
Chapter 4: Tanglang La
A long downhill followed the twin passes. The terrain was still rocky and dry and brown. Pang was the first town on the other side. We treated ourselves to some steaming thukpa and (relatively) dense air. The sight of a small hill next to the town, however, wiped the smiles off our faces. The lady from the shop tried to console us saying it was only 5 kilometers but after crossing three passes in as many days, even a single uphill pedal sounded like a serious undertaking. But the passes had also taught me how futile thinking about the incline was. There was no choice but to get on with it. One pedal at a time.
A strong headwind made the climb seem longer than it was. The reward, however, was waiting on the other side. The Moray plains spanned from Pang till the foothills of Tanglang La. Vast green flat land stretched till a horizon of grass covered mountains. Every now and then I’d see a herd of grazing sheep — spots of black and white spattered on a giant canvas painted with different shades of green and yellow. It was almost evening by the time I reached Debring. The herds had started to return and smoke had started to emanate from nomad tents.
Our hosts and their shepherd friends told us about Tanglang La. It was not like the other passes. There were no loops. Just one long steady climb across all the mountains around the valley. It was higher than the previous passes and it was going to be cold.
The next morning was cloudy and it did not get warmer as we waited. So we made our move. 15 kilometers between us and the pass. There was almost no movement on the road. The air was still and the silence was broken only by rattling of the chain and ringing of ears . The green plains became more and more distant with every pedal and the snow clad peaks crept closer. It started to drizzle near the top and the thin air kept making it harder to go on. Sounds of heavy breaths and raindrops now filled my ears. In the last stretch I had to stop after every fifty or so meters. But inching ahead, I made it and rewarded myself with some hot soupy Wai-Wai.
Chapter 5: Leh
The other side of Tanglang La was a cyclist’s paradise. The road was smooth and the views were grand. It was time to forget about pedals and brakes and let the bike fly. It was time to ride away from the icy peaks and into the valley. Rumtse, the next village was all downhill from here. The stream flowing from Tanglang la kept getting wider as we approached the town. The brown and white colors started to disappear and soon we were in the company of patches of green grass and peacefully grazing cows. At Rumtse we regrouped, filled our bellies and called our respective homes to inform that we were still alive.
Right before evening we started the stretch till Upshi. In those few kilometers in the twilight hours I was struck by the magnificence of Ladakh. The stream turned from white to a shining silver as the sun went down. Bright yellow mustard farms surrounded the picture perfect towns of Lato, Gya and Miru. Purple, pink and olive green mountains lined the road. Streams would roar down from the mountains and merge into the Tanglang La stream. Stupas of all sizes sat along the road and atop the mountains. It was only because of the limited daylight we had left that we kept going without stopping. It was already dark when we reached Upshi, the first town on the banks of Sindhu.
We had been hearing about Upshi for several days now. It was touted as the “only major town after Keylong” where they have electricity and phone signal and such luxuries. I was hoping for a bucket of hot water in a cozy homestay but all that had to wait for some more time. We encountered several angry hosts shouting at disgruntled travelers, and dark alleyways going over shops in the market leading to shady buildings before finding a place to sleep.
Next morning we took a leisurely walk on the banks of Sindhu and left after lunch. It was more of smooth sailing till Karu, the army town from where we took a detour towards Hemis, the largest monastery of Ladakh.
The monastery is so cleverly hidden between the mountains that one can’t see the vast expanse of the monastery complex before actually reaching its gate. The 7-km uphill turned out to be much harder than what we had expected, especially because of a strong headwind. We kept going slowly, observing monks of various ages busy with various tasks, and shouting a “Julley!” every now and then. The monastery has a guest house too, which was convenient since diminished distance to Leh had made us lazy. It also has a reasonably fancy restaurant featuring such things as hummus and pizzas. However, we were still in the ascetic mode, and were content with a bowl of thukpa and hot pakodas.
Some monks had also come to eat at the restaurant (they didn’t order anything exotic). They invited us to the evening pooja and told us about a cave in the upper reaches of the mountain where the lama who founded this monastery had attained enlightenment. We decided to visit the cave the next day and I, using the pooja invitation as an excuse, (finally) took a bath with freezing cold water. A little while later a monk told us that the pooja was about to start, so we followed him to the main temple of the monastery.
The temple was dimly lit with monks seated in rows, chanting mantras in deep voices, playing several traditional instruments every now and then. It went on for quite a while, all the attendees were served prasaad and butter tea. After the pooja ended, one of the monks showed us the way back. We met him the next morning while they were practicing the traditional Chham dance for the annual festival of the monastery. We talked to him about the life at the monastery, the economics and the training.
After breakfast we started the hike to the cave. It took us about an hour to reach the upper reaches of the mountain. There were several buildings over there which are used by monks for extended periods when they meditate, disconnected from the civilization. The said cave is now a part of a temple. We sat there for a while, explored the surrounding buildings and then went back to the monastery. It was time to go. The last stretch of the journey had begun. The hard part was over. The road to Leh was mostly flat, lined by the monasteries of Stakna and Thiksey. We reached Leh late in the evening and, with slight difficulty, found our hotel where we would be welcomed by cold beer, warm food and boiling hot water.
Epilogue: Khardung La
We spent a couple of days relaxing in Leh, roaming around the city, reminiscing about the journey, recounting our experiences. But one final challenge remained. Khardung La, the highest motorable road in India, was yet to be conquered. The last two days of riding before reaching Leh were slow and we had slacked a bit more in Leh. So it took a little convincing to finally get up one morning and start off toward the last pass.
It was going to be very hard. 40 kilometers of steady uphill. Roughly 2000 meters of altitude gain. And there was no place to spend a night on the way. And just one place where food could be found. This stretch had to be finished in one go. Starting at 7 in the morning was definitely a smart move.
The first 10-or-so kilometers were smooth, but then the unending incline started to make me think. I started to ask myself why I was doing this. I had reached Leh. The job was done. A conquest of Khardungla was not going to get me to a new destination. I would reach the top, and after a few minutes I’d head back towards Leh. It was almost like ticking an item off the checklist. With every passing minute, the going got tougher and the questions intensified.
I kept telling myself to hang on till South Pullu, the checkpost at 25km, where I’d take some rest and consider all the arguments over a plate of maggi. It was 2 PM when I reached South Pullu, but I decided not to worry too much about time. After a bit of bargaining I convinced myself to keep going. Yes, the last 15 kilometers were probably going to take another 3 hours, but on the other hand it was not possible for me to get any more tired. It made more sense to finish this ascent today rather than feeling regretful later. So I went on, and took the opportunity to recount my experiences over the past two weeks.
It had been a thoroughly fulfilling journey. We had met some amazing people . The two Kannadiga cyclists we met in Manali, were probably back in Bangalore by now. I think, out of the four of us, only Crunchy knew their names. Daryo, the Swiss guy who knew about cycling scenes of many strange countries, had probably cycled barefoot everywhere. Dennis from Amsterdam and Torres, the crazy Spaniard were still with us. They were far ahead of me, though. Torres must have been flying today with a cycle lighter by 60 kgs (give or take).
There were tough times too. The toughest was Nakee La. Over there I was hungry too. And all the snickers were with Crunchy, who was too lazy to part with them in the morning. I kept cursing him in my head, questioning his authority to decide whether or not I got to carry my own food. But I had to keep going regardless. And then one biker going in the opposite direction stopped in front of me, took a bar of snickers out of his pocket and said it was from my friend.
Situations where turning around is not an option enlarge one’s comfort zone. And it feels great to be on the other side. And it becomes a source of motivation at the next tricky situation. It is a virtuous cycle. Every adventure in the mountains has always left me hungry for more. I consider myself to be quite risk-averse but the super-set activities perceived as risky has been getting smaller, which gives me ever more reasons to go back to the mountains.
And there is peace. Silence. Tranquility. I would hear the movement of thoughts through my head. And in between a chirping bird, or a running stream. I would have long conversations with myself, sometimes without any words at all. I would hum a phrase of Yaman or Bhoopali, or a bandish in Vrindavani Sarang. I would look around, at the magnificent peaks and beautiful valleys. And I would smile.
At 5 pm I reached the pass. The road was so bad and I was so exhausted that I had to walk the last 6–7 kilometers. But it was done. After a few minutes I started the downward journey. 10 hours going up and barely 2 hours going down. It was dark by the time I reached the hotel, where the others were waiting, with hot food and cold beer.