10 Questions: Cycling The Indian Himalaya
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in the Indian Himalaya:
- Himalaya By Bike – A Trailblazer guide by Laura Stone.
- Ladakh By Bicycle – Just one page, but with lots of beautiful photos and an equipment list.