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
Paul Jeurissen & Grace Johnson cycled this road in 2011 and jotted down the following useful information and tips for other bike tourists.
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 The list of food and accommodation on the profile is outdated (there is now more accommodation and food than the profile shows) but for us it was important to see which pass was coming up and how steep or high it was.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Descending the Baralacha La – pure heaven!
- 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:
- Tailwinds on the Moray plains: just smile and wave as you sail past your fellow cyclists who are slowly grinding their way towards Manali.
- 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.
- 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:
- Himalaya By Bike – A website by the author of the guidebook under the same name. Route info and GPS tracks available online.
- A travelogue, inspirational photos and equipment list from another Leh-Manali trip
- Dennis Koomen en Marijcke Touissant cycled from Manali to Leh in 2008 and made a wonderful video about the trip
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.