The elevation chart looks like a heart patient’s ECG. More than 200km of the journey is above 4,000m, where there is no permanent human habitation. The enemies are bitter cold, cutting headwinds, broken roads, heartbreaking uphill climbs and, more than anything else, extreme gains in altitude. And when you finally get to Leh, you earn the right to try cycling all the way up to Khardung La, one of the highest motorable roads in the world.
The highway from Manali to Khardung La is iconic. There are harder roads and technically tougher rides, but there are none quite as high. Bicycling to Khardung La — the touring cyclist’s equivalent of the mountaineer’s Everest — may not be the hardest but it’s the most thrilling. Only half of the road is tarmac — the rest is rocks, gravel, sand, slush and imagination.
It was raining in Manali as we opened our bike boxes and started building our bikes. We got to know each other over a mess of Trek toptubes and Cannondale handlebars. None of us, eight guys and a girl, were the brightest lights of the Tour de France — a doctor, a lawyer, a financial analyst, a designer, a director’s assistant, a couple of executives, two students — all of us regular Joes and weekend riders headed for eight days of hell on a saddle.
The valley of the Beas, which thunders in the monsoon, is green and lush from Manali to Marhi. I was reminded of Tolkien’s Misty Mountains — the rock faces, the coniferous trees, the waterfalls cutting down brown rocks. The hills were covered in lush green as we left the trees behind and blue eldritch bloomed in clumps. This was an easy 35km of climbing but nothing compared to what was to come, especially once we started up for the passes.
‘Rohtang’ means a pile of corpses — a warning that the pass we were about to climb was malevolent by nature. The road had dissolved into mud and slush caused by a jumble of cars, trucks and motorcycles belching diesel fumes and spinning their wheels helplessly in the monsoon rain. We could at least push through the knee-deep slush, cyclocross style.
The mist was swept away on the other side of the chorten, and we realized we were under Lahaul’s clear blue skies. We cycled from Sissu to Jispa and then from Jispa to Patseo over the next two days, discovering each other over the valleys of Lahaul — our families, frailties and follies. Far away from cell phone networks, we learnt to talk without interruption, to focus on people and places instead of screens.
The climb to Baralacha La (4,892m) is long and arduous, with endless switchbacks. The air is thinner than any I have ever known. I feel like dying, like giving up, like sitting down and crying. It is cold and the wind knives through my pants. My legs have no strength in them at all and the road stretches endlessly uphill ahead of me. I am not alone.
We finally reach Surajtal — cobalt blue water in a bowl of brown dirt, the pass finally within striking distance. The Baralacha La gets its name because it’s central to 12 paths, a crossroads in the Trans-Himalaya that connects Ladakh, Spiti, Lahaul and Zanskar. Holy men use the pass to cross from Tibet into India in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.
We rode down to Bharatpur from Baralacha La and then relaxed at a beautiful serai. The serais we saw from here onward followed the same nomadic pattern — rock shelves covered with mattresses and then with blankets. At Bharatpur, there was a stove in the corner with eggs, tea, packets of Maggi noodles, and a small bar. Outside, an old man rolled his fingers over prayer beads. It was charming but the mountains here compress air into a narrow valley and there’s much less oxygen than there should be. A strange ennui settled over us and I was glad to leave it behind.
At Sarchu, the next day, our expedition leader Dhananjay woke us up with breakfast and a gleeful warning that the next day of climbing would be far harder. It was warm and easy from Sarchu to the bottom of the famous Gata Loops, which are 22 long switchbacks that wind like intestines to gain 500m of altitude in 8 kilometres. The road climbed to Nakee La (4,950m) from the top of the Gata Loops and there was a merciful descent to Takh after that. A serai offered lemon tea and eggs as refreshments at Takh but our hearts quailed at the wall of rock before us. The sun was going down and another pass, the Lachulang La (5,100m), loomed ahead. It was starting to get cold but we rolled for it. Himalayan marmots popped in and out of holes in the hillside as we pushed upward.
Beyond Pang, the highway rises onto the Morey Plains, a desert at 4,000m. Ripping across the sandy face of the plateau was a treat after the hard climbing of the previous days. On that wide patch of sand, there is only one settlement — two nomadic tents at Tso Kar.
Tso Kar, a massive salt lake, is God’s own bowl in the mountains, full of white sand and thick, lush grass rooted around the lake. Wild horses graze here. A horseman appears over one of the hills and you can see him coming forever.
The next day, we climb the Taglang La, also one of the highest motorable passes in the world. Halfway up the Taglang La, it started to hail and rain and we took shelter in BRO huts. One of the road workers asked us why we had come this way. I found this hysterically funny — 17,000 feet from sea level, cold, wet, hungry, exhausted and miserable — this was our idea of a holiday?
Entering Leh was a tremendous anti-climax. After hours of riding over its beautiful, green suburbs, past monasteries that rose into the sky, the entry point to a now fully commercialized Leh is a small green board, bent away from the road. Baths, clean clothing and actual beds beckoned. Mirrors revealed that we were skinny, sunburnt, brown and dirty, all the way down to the molecular level. Welcome to civilization, I thought bitterly, and now, for the first time in two weeks, I would have to lock my cycle.
The pinnacle of our effort, the Khardung La, was an incredible challenge — more than two vertical kilometres over a 40km road. It took me nearly eight hours of climbing to get up to it and I was dizzy in the thin air. The last five kilometres were pure torture — insane gradients, jagged rocks puncturing tyres, the cold, the treachery of turns in the road. And then, finally, we were there, screaming with joy, hugging each other, seeing the Nubra Valley. We had achieved that for which we had come. Then we turned and swept down the road, proud as eagles.
How to do the trip
Do it unsupported only if you are an experienced touring cyclist. Otherwise, go with a reliable expedition. Dhananjay Ahluwalia of Being Out There (Rs 32,000 per person; 9218602040) is an experienced and relaxed outfitter. Red Spokes (from about Rs 1,00,000; redspokes.co.uk) and Yama Treks (only for groups, minimum six riders, approximately Rs 40,000-50,000, depending on route and other exigencies; 9419178763, yamatreks.com) offer the same trip as 15- to 17-day expeditions. In any case, cycling experience and decent cardiovascular fitness are essential. There may be medical risks related to the altitude and severe exposure.
Where to stay
There are very affordable parachute-tented serais at convenient stops, or you can pitch your own tent. You can stock up on supplies here. There are no hotels or guesthouses on this route.
A basic hardtail mountain bike with good suspension and thick tyres is essential. We had a mix of Treks and Cannondales, and one Firefox. Whatever it is, the most important things: be very comfortable riding it and be able to carry out basic repairs.
Carry spare tubes, chain lube, gloves, warm clothes and a medical kit. You can take soap; it’s nice to look at.