Mountain biking to an oxygen-starved height of 6000 meters, the body ceases to feel pain, thoughts seem distant, and time comes to a standstill. Eventually, the semi-arid, snow-dusted landscape leaves you breathless!
Route spans northern Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and J&K
Backpacker, biker, and guest contributor Ravi Shankar shares his Himalayan cycling expedition from Manali to Leh.
A Butt-Blazing Start
For almost two weeks, we started our days at 08:00 am, literally worked our butts off, and retired at 07:00-08:00 pm. Routine, you say? Indeed. But, when you are with fifty other men and women, mountain biking your way up, chances are you will get hooked to it. That your starting point is Manali, a backpacker’s high-altitude Himalayan rave town, makes it all the more interesting. This is where we learn to breathe while pushing the pedals, figure out how to effectively use the gears, service a mountain bike, optimize the weight in our daypacks, and gauge our preparedness. This is where we acclimatize.
In the beginning, the raw enthusiasm and the contagious energy of the group is suitably sufficient to get off to a powerful start. Loud chatter, cracking jokes, laughter, and even singing, makes the cut. The excitement to get on with something unprecedented steals the first few days. But it conceals more than it reveals. It conceals an inherent fear, an inherent apprehension, and perhaps the unspoken question – will I succeed? In an age when a message like ‘you can do it’ is packaged as a social media meme and delivered with alarming regularity, it is easy to get pumped up and overestimate your fitness. The acclimatization schedule does little to take the shine off. It is when the rubber meets the road, in the first three days of riding, that reality hits you. In the butt. Cyclists live by the ‘no dragging and no hitching’ rule: If you are not pedaling, you do not move.
The first three days are a test; a sort of ‘trial by fire’. Your meme-pumped morale slides down from the peak and keeps spiraling south. Into an abyss. The profound stupidity of undertaking something so-out-of-your-league becomes evident. It gets worse. Your unpreparedness becomes evident to everyone around you. Your only saving grace? Almost everyone else is like you. Some get wise, drop out, and return. The rest of us continue to live in denial, taking punches from the hostile Himalayan terrain; as if there’s a reward in all of this. Let’s be clear. You only think of moving forward, making frustrating course corrections (its easy to lose your way) while hurling abuses, eating the next meal, or crashing in a sweaty camp with ten others. Meanwhile, the beautiful mountains of Rohtang Pass flash by.
The Messy Middle
High-altitude cycling in a fickle weather can make you sick. Very sick. With every pedal, oxygen gets rarer and the breathing, heavier. When the person sleeping next to you starts a high-pitched wheezing at 03:00 am, you realize that there’s no higher truth than surviving the day and the night. The organizers offered a ride back or a day of extra rest to whosoever needed. Few more got wise to drop out, and return. There are times when self-esteem goes berserk to cloak under a masochistic ego. On a rain-soaked morning, I popped in a pain-killing paracetamol, strapped my knee-pads, and climbed the saddle. The second phase of the expedition is lined with few of the most amazing sceneries in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Here we crossed the legendary Lahaul and Spiti area, and the Bārā Lācha La high mountain pass of the Zanskar range.
At the time, to wear a water-proof jacket or not was a routine decision. It would start to pour any moment and get sunny equally abruptly. Looking at it one way, in the absence of an everyday shower, the elements took care of our washing needs! But, the subsequent icy draft made us shiver too. On one such afternoon, cycling in a typical file, we reached a moderately sized stream. Though the ‘no dragging and no hitching’ rule was relaxed in such occurrences, the sight of the glacial waters was enough to give us cold feet. Heavy rains and soaking wet shoes had us disoriented briefly, as we wandered off-track, before reaching our destination for the day, interestingly named Zingzing Bar.
On day 6, it was time to ride the haunted Gata loops, also known as 21 loops (hair pin curves). Legend has it that once a truck broke down here and the driver asked his assistant to keep watch on the cargo while he walked up to the nearest town to get help. As fate had it, weather turned for worse and delayed the mission. When help finally arrived, they found the assistant dead. Since then, people have reported sightings of a man flagging down vehicles to ask for water. It is said that those who refused, developed a debilitating sickness, and few have even died. To pacify the spirit, locals constructed a memorial and started to offer water bottles. Though the mishaps have reduced, as a practice, nobody stops or halts unnecessarily while crossing these 21 loops. But then, not a lot many cycle through these either. After 12 or 13 loops, a friend and I gave up pedaling and crashed into a sound sleep for about half an hour. Thereafter, luckily, no one flagged us through the rest of the loops before we reached another interestingly named landmark, the Whiskey Nala or the Whiskey Stream.
The Magnificent Middle
In the midst of heavy rains and haunted stories of the 21 loops, we had crossed over from Himachal Pradesh into Ladakh. The one good thing about this expedition was the way it was designed – with alternating easy and tough days. The tough days required climbing a mountain on well maintained black tar roads. Whereas, the easy ones were offroad, crossing plains and plateaus. Irrespective of the terrain, managing your energy through the evening made the difference between everyday success and failure. At times, when exhausted, we took brief naps by the road side. At other times, nature offered refreshing ideas. For instance, after crossing Lachungla pass, we entered a colder, semi-arid desert, with rock formations in different shades, with soul-soothing views of water bodies, topped by pure white clouds in a deep blue sky.
Day 8 was through the uninhabited and dramatic Morey plains, with mountains on either side of the road. There was something surreal about getting here. It was not a sense of achievement such as conquering a summit. Rather, life slowed down. It felt as if my legs went on some sort of auto-biker mode, as if wind was powering the pedals, and my shoulders relaxed. My neck swerved slowly and effortlessly to scan the panorama. It felt magical, as if nature was talking to me. My breathing had found its rhythm at 5000 meters. The mind was empty. I could sense fellow cyclists in the file. I could hear them breathe. I could smell the earth. I felt connected, I felt one with everyone and everything around me.
Night’s dinner at the Debring camp was a meal to enjoy. The 30-35 Km of slow cycling had somehow fired the taste buds too. It was a regular vegetarian meal (with veg curries, lentils and roti) just like on rest of the days, but it felt fulfilling. It had energized us for the next day – to cycle on one of the world’s highest motorable roads while crossing the Taglang La Pass. This was a day to test the muscle power, a day to share a sense of accomplishment with fellow bikers, and a day for celebrations and selfies. From the high mountain pass, we started our descent on one of the best roads I have seen in India. Kudos to Border Roads Organization (BRO). It allowed us a downhill high speed of 40-45 Kmph to one of the best camps of this trip – Rumtse.
The Flag Finish
The last leg of this journey offered an opportunity to pay our tributes to the Indian Army serving in these extreme frontier conditions. It is so heart-warming when a a soldier notices and waves back to you. It was a day that required us to cycle 80 Kms, the longest daily distance so far. By now, we were fully acclimatized to the environment. Plus the anticipation of celebrations erupting at the base camp had us motivated. Yet, the strong headwinds turned the last 5 Km of cycling into an uphill powerplay. 40 out of the original group size of 50 people reached the beautiful town of Leh – the ‘summit’, with colorful Buddhist prayer flags.
Finally, here’s the thing with Khardung La Pass: it was optional. While few others pushed forward another day for a return cycling trip to what is often cited as the world’s highest motorable road, I chose to relax at the camp. I was elated with the achievement. I was also sad that this journey had come to an end. I was sad to say good byes to fellow cyclists with whom I had shared some of the best moments ever. From Leh airport, I flew back home with mixed feelings and tons of memories for a lifetime.
Extremity commands a tough character, it brings out the extraordinary. There were times during the expedition, when fellow cyclists demonstrated grit, went out of their way, or even put themselves in harm’s way to help others. Their commitment went beyond merely completing the ten days of cycling. They took a stand for the group. Men and women, of various ages, from different parts of India, inspired us to stay on track. If there was anything bigger than the surrounding Himalayas, it was their hearts. It was such an honor to ride with them for ten days, crossing five Himalayan passes. My brother-in-law, friend, and fellow cyclist, Ramgopal Konerpalli and I thank Mr. Sumit Patil – Field Director at Youth Hostel Association of India, and the incredible cyclists in our group for the love and support! A loud shout out to these heroes!
In the beginning, we learn how to cycle in a file sharing parts of busy highways with truckers and other traffic. While we also pick up basic skills to service our bikes, there is a team of people to fix more complicated breakdowns. Medical professionals in a well-equipped ambulance accompanies us throughout. When I had with a minor skid and a fall, they offered first aid. One of the support team members carried enough water for us to refill our bottles and to stay hydrated. In short, the safety arrangements were sufficient to instill confidence. The only thing that I would add as a safety advice – train yourself a bit before undertaking something as strenuous as this. Hit the gym, start running, or bike!
Sleep and Food
Camps, tents, and dormitories. Usually ten people shared a tent. Here’s what a typical tent acco looked like (featured). Youth Hostel Association of India or YHAI, that organizes such expeditions, arranges separate tents for men and women. Makeshift toilets and kitchens are setup at each camp. Speaking of kitchens, the food served was basic vegetarian (with eggs for people who prefer it) – enough to nourish your body. Please note that YHAI strictly prohibits consumption of alcohol in their camps. Besides, you would come across many dhabas (highway eateries) serving an evergreen menu of noodles and tea. Here’s a useful tip: do not waste food. The effort of providing food in such remote terrains is high. Respect that. Order or serve yourself only as much as you can eat.
Youth Hostels Association of India
Interested in this or similar expeditions? Please contact YHAI India for upcoming schedule and requirements.
Notes: Photo Credits to Ravi Shankar and his cycling mates. This story is edited for Backpacking Series by Abhijeet Deshpande
Have you biked to Leh? How was your experience? We would be delighted to see your pictures, and hear from you.
PS: If you’ve read till the end, we would be delighted if you could hit the like button and share it on social media