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Himalayan Bike Touring Tips: From Leh To Manili

Posted May 5th, 2012

The road that leads from Leh to Manili in the India’s Himalaya mountains is a spectacular bike touring destination.

The scenery is epic and hard-won over a series of 5000m passes which lead from the lush Kullu Valley over high altitude desert to the remote and starkly beautiful mountain region of Ladakh. – Himalaya By Bike

Ascending
Photo by Paul Jeurissen. Ascending the Baralacha La pass.

Paul Jeurissen & Grace Johnson cycled this road in 2011 and jotted down the following useful information and tips for other bike tourists.

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Maps - We carried the Nelles map of North India but we only used it to find our way between the different monasteries near Leh. Once we headed out on the Leh-Manali road, we stashed our map into a back pannier and didn’t end up getting it out until after we had left the mountains. A map is not really necessary for much of the trip because once you leave the Indus valley and start heading towards Manali there is just the one road, which all of the buses and trucks also take.

“Even though we didn’t look at our map, we looked daily at a small altitude and pass profile of the road, which we found on a number of websites. The list of food and accommodation on the profile is outdated (there is now more accommodation and food than the profile shows) but for us it was important to see which pass was coming up and how steep or high it was.

Route Profile
A profile of the route from Leh to Manili.

Internet Access - At first we thought we could get online with our smart phone but Ladakh is very close to the Chinese border and the Pakistani line of control so the Airtel sim card that we bought in Delhi didn’t work there. To buy a SIM card for Leh, you need to submit 5 passport photos, which we decided not to do. In Leh there are a number of good internet cafes and in Keylong our Airtel sim card started working again. Keylong also has a shop with an internet connection but that connection was very slow.

Traffic - Most of the traffic is supply trucks for the Indian army bases near Leh and they always seemed to be ‘grouped’ together. So we would just pull off the side of the road to let them pass. It was also a great excuse to stop and catch our breath. You can later tell your friends, “I could have cycled up the Taglang La pass in one go but unfortunately all of those truck convoys forced me to take rest stops!”

Of course all the trucks and buses belch out exhaust fumes – they are Indian Tatas. But after a convoy passes, it was usually quite some time before the next group reached us. They don’t drive that fast, sometimes only 15-20 km/h due to the road conditions. They also know the road well since they spend the whole summer driving back and forth between Leh and Manali.

We were told that the worst traffic was on the Keylong – Manali section. Luckily for us the Rohtang pass was closed due to a big traffic jam so we ended up cycling ‘traffic free’ from Keylong to Gramphu.

Monastary
The Stakna Monastary. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Rohtang Pass - We didn’t cycle over the Rohtang since we decided to turn left towards Spiti, but boy did we hear comments from other cyclists about it: “It’s awful!”, “Terrible traffic”, “Mud-feast”,” #&!” and so on.

It turns out that Manali is a popular tourist destination and since many Indians have never seen snow before they all drive up to the top of the Rohtang to go play in it. At Gramphu we met cyclists coming down the pass who had been able to squeeze past the traffic jam on the Manali side. They said: “We met people who had been stuck in their cars for the last three days. Some of them applauded as we squeezed our bikes past but others gave us the ‘middle finger’.”

Altitude - Gasp, wheeze, gasp! What makes cycling the Leh to Manali highway difficult is the extreme altitude. The road heads over a number of passes, one of which is the Taglang la. At 5,328 meters it’s the second highest motorable pass in the world. If you’re feeling truly masochistic, head up the  5,359-meter Khardung La pass on the other side of Leh.


Descending from the Baralacha La pass. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Of course the higher you go, the less oxygen there is in the air. I remember heading up the last section of the Rohtang and even when I lay down on the side of the road I still was gasping for air. Sleeping at high altitudes can also be difficult and many times we awoke gasping for breath. What we were experiencing is called “Cheyne-Stokes breathing” (read more). For this route, you should be aware of how to prevent altitude mountain sickness.

Since we were flying into Leh at 3,524 meters, we decided to take diamox tablets. They help with acclimatisation. We started the day before our flight and continued swallowing them for two days thereafter. They really helped. On previous trips when we didn’t take them, we had a lot of headaches and sleeping problems (read more about diamox).

Food - Between Leh and Manali there are a number of dhabas (parachute tent camps) where you can buy: candy bars, boiled eggs, maggi noodles, chapattis, omelettes, rice and dal bhat ( an Indian dish of brown beans). The route profile photo shows some of their locations and in 2011 there was also a dhaba at Whiskey Nullah and Debring.

Sleeping - It’s possible to cycle the route without a tent. You can stay in the parachute tents that line the road.

Parachute Tent Camp
A parachute tent camp, where cyclists can stay the night. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

There are, however, a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to carry a tent with you:

  • Safety – If you read a number of Leh-Manali travelogues, you will find out that storms regularly pass through the area. You can become stranded for days until the route is cleared.
  • Wild camping – We camped in some spectacular places. They turned out to be some of our favorite memories from the trip.
  • Privacy – The parachute tents are dormitory style. If you are unlucky (like the Italian cyclist we met), a group of people will literally ‘take over’ the tent and hold a party until two in the morning.

Wild Camping
A beautiful wild camping spot. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Roads - First of all the climbs are gradual. As one English cyclist said, “They don’t build the roads here as steep as they do in Laos. Otherwise the Tata trucks wouldn’t be able to drive over the passes.” As for the road surface, it’s paved from Leh to Upshi and from Keylong to Gramphu but the rest is a combination of asphalt, gravel, washboard and sand.

Which way should you go? Here are the reasons to go from Leh to Manali:

  1. Leh and the Indus valley is a great place to spend time acclimatizing. Guidebooks recommend spending a minimum of a week in Leh before heading out hiking (or cycling). The first week we were there I was a bit sick so we decided to spend another week just cycling around the Indus valley – visiting a number of monasteries such as Hemis, Thiksey and Stakna.
  2. If you do come down with altitude sickness on the highway – it’s much easier to catch a lift in a truck. All of the trucks have dropped their cargo in Leh and are heading back empty to Manali. The chauffeurs are friendly and when I was reduced to pushing my bike on the last section of the Rohtang, they continually stopped to offer a lift.
  3. Descending the Baralacha La – pure heaven!
  4. Descending the Rohtang La: we didn’t go over it but all the cyclists we met said that it was much better to descend the Rohtang than to ascend it from the Manali side.

And the reasons to go from Manali to Leh:

  1. Tailwinds on the Moray plains: just smile and wave as you sail past your fellow cyclists who are slowly grinding their way towards Manali.
  2. You will suffer less from altitude on the Rohtang than someone who is coming from Leh. Also, if you want to cycle over the Khardung La pass, then it will be much easier since you are properly acclimatized.
  3. Somehow Leh seems like a more fitting and wonderful end to the journey than Manali.

Leaving From Delhi Airport - If you’re flying out of Delhi, watch out for the oversized baggage x-ray machine. After you have checked in for your flight, staff will wheel your bicycle away. Follow them! They are bringing your bike to a large x-ray machine but its opening is too small to for a bike to fit in. They will still try to cram it through (and thus damage the bike). Luckily, we were able convince them that our bicycles couldn’t fit in the x-ray and should be examined manually.

For more inspiration, see:

The authors of this article – Paul & Grace – are on a multi-year bicycle trip and project: “Bicycling around the world in search of inspiring cycle images”. They are photographing the different bicycle cultures around the world and the feeling of travelling by bicycle. See their blog.

10 Questions: Cycling The Indian Himalaya

Posted May 15th, 2011

Christian DittmannIn the adventure-cycling world, India’s beautiful Himalaya mountains are one of the most interesting and scenic places you can go, as well as one of the more challenging.

Christian Dittmann recently completed a bike tour in this area.

“The ride took me through three of the big world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I went through many different ethical areas. There was Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul with its Tibetan and IndoArian influences (a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism); remote Ladakh, the land of the high passes and often called Little Tibet; the barren and isolated Zanskar Valley and the mainly Muslim inhabited beautiful green Kashmir,” said Christian.

For this edition of 10 Questions, Christian describes his experiences of bike touring there in summer 2010 and shares practical tips for cycling in the Himalaya mountains.

1. Can you briefly describe your route and why you choose this route in particular?

I started in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh and cycled through the Kinnaur and Spiti Valley, close to the Tibetan border, then went via the Manali- Leh Highway up to Ladakh, then further to Srinagar, halfway I went down to remote Zanskar before heading to the final point in Kashmere, Srinagar. This route offers a huge variety of ethnicities, natural settings and cultures. From three of the world religions to lush green valleys, remote high altitude desserts and high passes this was motivation enough for me to choose that route.

Friendly People

2. What resources did you use in planning the trip?

Mostly I used maps. I love maps! I also got information from websites, mostly from cycle forums and trip reports from other cyclists. I also used guidebooks, but mostly for rough information about the region. Although guidebooks are not very helpful for cyclists, they provide a small overview of a country’s history, culture, customs. But generally I don’t plan too much. Expect the unexpected, or in the words of Roald Amundsen: “Adventure is just bad planning”.

3. What was a typical day like on the road?

A typical day on the road can seem quite boring: get up in the morning, breakfast, cycle, lunch, cycle, break, cycle more and in the evening call it a day with a huge dinner and sometimes with a shower. What made a lot of difference was when there were mountain passes to climb during the day, or when the day was easier, with not so many uphill stretches. In any case, every day is different with fresh scenery, impressions, experiences and feelings. This, in combination with cycling, made every single day valuable.

Sorry for the oooh, ahhh, ouch...


4. What was the road condition like?

Everything can occur, from newly paved virgin tarmac to tracks where potholes dominate. Some parts were in very good condition while others were more riverbeds than a road. It depends on the importance of the stretch. In Kinnaur, for example, the roads are very good because of the close distance to Tibet and the need of fast access for the army. Other parts are less important like the Zanskar road and are more like a washboard. Because of landslides, parts of the road can turn from excellent to very bad to unrideable in no time.

5. What did you do for accommodation? Are there hotels most nights, or is a tent an absolute necessity?

This trip can be done without camping gear. There will be accommodation all along the way, from hotels and rest houses to luxury tent camps. All is possible but don’t expect too much. In most places it is better, quieter and cleaner to camp in your own tent. The sound of drunken truck drivers or snoring during the night is not everybody’s cup of tea.

Out riding in the Indian Himalaya


6. Is food and water easily obtainable every day? What kind of supplies can you buy?

Food and water is easily obtainable almost all the way. Sometimes the supplies can be limited, but normally it is no problem. I always carried food for a few days, but mostly it was possible to find something along the road, though on some stretches it is worth to plan ahead with water and food. For example, on the road to Zanskar there were almost no shops. On the Morrei Plateau on the Manali- Leh road, there is no water for 90km or so.

Bottled water is available almost everywhere. Although a water filter would be helpful, I didn’t carry one. With boiling water or the use of iodine tablets, I was fine.

The usual diet is dhal (lentils), rice or chapatis (bread), eggs cooked various ways and also instant noodles. Soft drinks are available too, as are the usual suspects of Snickers and Mars chocolate bars.

7. Is is possible to throw your bike on a bus, if you don’t want to cycle the whole way?

During the few summer months there are buses, shared taxis, trucks and private vehicles so it is easy to organize a transport. Normally it is no problem to throw the bike on the roof of a bus or taxi. On the road if something happens it is also easy to wave down any transport if you need a lift. There is frequently traffic passing by and someone will help you if necessary. The unreliable bus schedule can be a problem if time is an issue, but then there are alternatives such as taxis or trucks.

8. What one moment really stands out from the trip as a great moment?

It is difficult to point out one great moment. There are too many to chose from. Let me name two small moments that really warmed my heart: Once a military convoy stoped next to me and a couple of officers handed me a few apples in the middle of nowhere. Another day, I had a tea break in one of the seasonal parachute dhabas (a sort of tent) run by a Tibetan family. After a while, the girl came to my table and gave me one banana and a plum as a gift. Those fruits were probably the best I’ve ever eaten.

Which way? The open plateaus in the Indian Himalaya.

9. And what was one low point or tough challenge you had to overcome?

The landslides in Leh in August was very tough and demoralising. It show how fragile we are when nature strikes back. All roads in and out Leh were blocked. Bridges and parts of the roads were washed away. I met an Austrian in Leh and we decided to try to go out by bicycle. The destruction we saw was very high and at some point I asked myself if it really made sense to be here right now.

10. One piece of advice for people who want to do this route?

Bring a strong bike, it might be not the most expensive one, but something like a MTB gives a huge advantage. Also bring good all-weather gear, the Himalayan weather can change within minutes, and snowstorms in summer are not unusual. And then? Just do it…

Thanks to Christian Dittmann for answering the questions and providing the photos. Check out his blog, Terra Interminate, with its wonderful journals and photos of his ride.

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in the Indian Himalaya:

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

 

Posted in 10 Questions, India, Map

Show 31: Tim & Cindie Travis, Peter Gostelow and Winter Biking

Posted January 8th, 2010

NEW Tim and Cindie Travis 500It’s a packed show for Edition 31 of the Travelling Two bike touring podcast.

Peter in TibetTim & Cindie Travis of Down The Road are our guests this week. They share thoughts and stories after nearly 8 years of continuous bike touring and fill us in on their future plans to ride through India.

We also get a quick update from Peter Gostelow on how his bike trip through Africa is going. He’s currently in Morocco and heading for Mauritania.

Finally, we ponder winter biking, including equipment we’re taking on an upcoming trip and some inspiration for biking in cold temperatures from the beautiful Up In Alaska blog.

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Show Notes:

And, as a special bonus, check out this video from the Up In Alaska blog.

Alaska Slickrock from Jill Homer on Vimeo.

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