Sunday, October 24, 2010

Leh to Manali by bike

Next time I go on holiday I want to go on a normal one. But what is a normal holiday? To some it is sitting on a beach while others need some action and exercise. Normal for me is cycling or walking somewhere in the world but after this last trip I just want to find a beach somewhere. You see I have just returned from ten days cycling through the Indian Himalayas from Leh to Manali.

Adventure is in my blood, nothing serious but just a little challenge now and then. I spend all my holidays walking and cycling and, as a travel agent, I also sell walking and cycling holidays. Three years ago I cycled down the Karakorum Highway from Kashgar in China to Islamabad in Pakistan. This was a reasonably challenging cycle with one high pass, the Kunjerab Pass, at 4700 metres. Leh to Manali, however, is the world’s second highest motorable road and has four high passes, with the highest being 5328 metres and the lowest being just 3978 metres. And it is only half the distance of the Karakorum Highway.

There are only two roads to Leh, one from Srinagar and one from Manali. I had been to Leh twice in the early eighties when I was leading Trans Asia expeditions from Kathmandu to London. Then, it was the tortuous road from Srinagar, which wound its way over three high passes followed by a dusty track alongside the Indus river. Then, the road from Manali was closed to foreigners as it was the military supply road to the northern areas. But now it is open and three years ago I started planning the logistics of cycling it but wasn’t sure if I should start in Leh or Manali.

The runway in Leh has been upgraded and now there are a number of airlines operating wide-bodied jets. They depart Delhi before 0600 so you have to be a morning person. I had booked my Jet Airways business class seat in Australia, not because I am rich but I needed the extra baggage allowance to get my bike on board for free. Security was very tight in both Leh and Delhi due to the high military presence in Ladakh. It was only an eighty minute flight but it was one of my best. Way below me there were snow clad peaks everywhere and I tried to picture the road I would be cycling down in a few days. In the distance I even glimpsed K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

I was looking forward to haggling over the price of the taxi into town and was very surprised to find out that it is now a fixed price and you prepay at the airport office. Where’s the fun these days? Leh is at a height of 3505 metres so I took it easy as I carried my bike and panniers to the taxi. I didn’t want to drop dead just yet!

My companions, Alasdair, Graeme, Gordon and Trevor were already in the hotel as they had flown in from Scotland two days earlier. But they were still asleep when I was dropped off. So I ordered my breakfast of omlate (sic), toast butter jam and black tea and then relaxed in the garden under a shady tree. It was only eight o’clock but already the sun had a bite in it, not to mention a high amount of UV as well.

Leh is a noisy and dusty town with narrow winding streets where vehicles speed along with beeping horns and without an obvious care for pedestrians. Vehicles rule and the bigger you are the faster and noisier you can drive. They also belch diesel fumes and mixed with the dust and the high altitude you have a good healthy start to your day! Dogs roam everywhere, scavenging, and at night the barking, sometimes in unison and sometimes individual, soothes you off to sleep and then wakes you up again. Part of the fun and excitement of travelling to remote places.

Three of the highest motorable passes in the world are within 100km of Leh. The highest is the Kardung La (5620m) followed by Chang La (5599m) and then the Taglang La at 5328m. La is the Tibetan world for pass. Kardung La by bike had been a dream of mine for a long time and now I was sitting on the balcony of my hotel in Leh eyeing the road as it twisted its way up the nearby mountain. From Leh it was a 2000 metre climb in just forty kilometres. The others did it the day after I arrived, eight hours up and two down and were totally shagged when they arrived back. I was very surprised with their success as they had only arrived three days before which I felt was just not enough time to acclimatise. However, three of them were taking Diamox tablets which aid acclimatisation. Graeme wasn’t and he was physically sick near the top but made it nevertheless. I managed half way up the next day and that was my only chance as time was against me.

We had all brought our own bikes and camping equipment and were totally self-sufficient. I only put my tent up once as I slept out under the stars when we were not in hotels or dhabas (tea-shops and basic accommodation). Although we had two stoves and cooking equipment, it really wasn’t necessary. At lower altitudes these Dhabas were permanent buildings but higher up they were parachute tents and were only temporary during the summer months. There were literally ex military parachutes made into a tent like a marquee.

From Leh we cycled along the Indus River past the monasteries of Shey and Thikse. We also passed the world’s highest golf course where the fairways were all sand and the greens, some kind of tar. Imagine playing nine holes where every shot is a bunker shot? It wasn’t a busy road but it was hot and dusty with some diesel fumes thrown in for good measure. That night we camped in the grounds of the famous Hemis monastery which is hidden in a secluded and beautiful valley. We had cycled just thirty eight kilometres in eight hours with the last seven from Karu to Hemis taking about two. Cycling at altitude is much easier than walking although on many occasions I had to dismount and push my bike. The ride down next day to Karu took only thirty minutes.

There were four passes to be crossed on the six hundred kilometre cycle from Leh to Manali. The first one is the Taglang La (5328m) followed by the Lachalung La (5065m) and then the Baralacha La (4890m) with the final and lowest one being the Rohtang La (3975m). The last one is the divide between monsoonal India and the high altitude desert of Ladakh and Zanskar.

The next two days were uphill to the Taglang La but then it was downhill followed by many ups and downs, plus headwinds of course, to Pang. Pang is a dusty collection of dhabas where we feasted on soup, parathas, rice, dhal and endless cups of black tea. Although I counted the kilometres, time was the best measure of our progress. Our longest day was eighty seven kilometres and shortest, twenty seven but both days took the same number of hours.

The Lachalang La saw it raining and as we descended the twenty one hair-pin bends of the Gato Loops it became rather heavy and cold. This was a very dangerous descent where any lack of concentration would see me off the edge. My fingers were constantly curled around my brake levers and I was very aware that braking in the wet is about fifty per cent less effective than when it is dry. Indian roads are not smooth and I was always looking down trying to avoid the constant potholes. At the same time I had to keep looking ahead to see where the next 180 degree bend was and to look for any trucks or buses chugging uphill. I use a mirror in which I was constantly checking for suicidal downhill truckies. We regrouped at the bottom all shivering and wet. It was then twenty four kilometres against the wind to Sarchu, a motley collection of dhabas and a police checkpoint. To ease the pain I dreamt of relaxing on some tropical beach!

The day before Baralacha La was the hardest. We only cycled twenty seven kilometres but it took six hours. It was raining, it was cold, the road was potholed and we crossed many landslides which were still moving. Low flying cloud obscured what must have been a tremendous vista of high snow clad mountains. I was wet and cold and struggling with the altitude (from 4000 metres to 4500 metres) but I knew I had to keep going. A broken spoke or a puncture would have been impossible to fix.

Buses do the trip in two days with overnight stops at Sarchu or Pang depending on which way you are going. It is a very busy road with many trucks and buses continually moving goods and people up into the mountains. Initially there was a lot of traffic which meant we had to be careful. Buses stopped for the night but many trucks kept going which meant our peaceful camps were not as peaceful as we would have liked. Some of these drivers drove the whole two days with only a few stops for refreshment and toilet. No log books over there! On the third day we found out that there had been a landslide just above Manali which had taken out a bridge and several kilometres of road. This was good news for us but bad for the local economy. The good news for us meant that there was only a few local trucks and buses sharing our road.

Manali was the end of the trip and it was only fifty kilometers downhill from the Rohtang La. But it wasn’t that easy. There was a sting in the tail. At the Rohtang La we went from bright sunshine to moisture laden clouds within one metre. We were now in the monsoon. It was raining and it was cold and very misty and we knew that we still had to carry our bikes and gear down the bypass of the slip. Suddenly out of the mist we were mobbed by hundreds of local porters vying for our business. It was a fairly steep slope and looked very treacherous. We weren’t really in a position to bargain and Trevor just agreed on the price and set off with two porters carrying his bike and gear. I hired one porter and thought I could carry my own bike but I soon realised I was in trouble and hired another porter. It was a treacherous slope made very slippery with the rain but after ninety minutes of slipping and sliding I arrived at the bottom covered in mud and scratches. My bike and gear arrived without any damage.

I put on new brake blocks before freewheeling down the last fourteen kilometres to Manali. After a three kilometre uphill ride we found the Dragon Hotel which had been recommended by two of my clients I had surprisingly met in Leh. A hot shower was followed by beer on the balcony. The temperature was just perfect and we just sat there taking in the surrounding beauty and relaxing. It was over!

This was one of the hardest holidays I have ever been on. I have always wanted to cycle in Mongolia so maybe next year I will go cycle with the nomads. Or maybe I will just go to Koh Samui.

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