Ups and downs…… Joys and disappointments….. Happy and sad…Hits and misses…. This is what life teaches us and so did this particular cycle ride…..A lot in the literal sense as well!!!
The plan to cycle from manali to leh was on my mind since the past year/year and a half. Was on the lookout for some event to be published on social media so that I could register. Of course I had to convince a few friends ,since I was sure that I wanted to go with a bunch of like minded people.
Fortunately, things fell into place. Found a person, Shubham Dharamkstu , who is an avid cyclist himself, to organise the event and a few close friends (Dr.Shantanu Deshpande, Ar.Siddharth Durve, Capt. Abhijeet Mahajan )who were as charged as I was to do this ride. So we were down to a group of 6 people (4 of us and shantish and shailesh were the other 2 guys to join in) to take on the famous Manali Leh cycle route in the month of June 2018.
After planning for 4 odd months, the D day finally arrived. What follows is an account of the days spent in the Lahul Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh.
The trip started on a irritating note to say the least!!! Our flight to Chandigarh got delayed due to a dust storm in Chandigarh and we had to spend close to 16 hrs on the airport!!! After being rerouted to delhi airport we were put in a late night bus to Chandigarh. A taxi ride from Chandigarh to Mandi to meet Abhi who had come from Jammu in his XUV.
After a late lunch together at Mandi , we all started towards Manali in the XUV, but to add further irritation we encountered a terrible traffic jam on the way right upto manali. It was commendable on Abhi’s part to drive the XUV in the crazy Manali traffic in the narrow lanes ,up the steep slope!! If it was me in his place I would have just given up driving then and there itself. It was really that bad. What should have taken us 15 to 16 hours of travel from pune to manali, took us 40 hours!!!! It was extremely frustrating and irritating. Not an ideal scenario to start a highly anticipated tour, but the anticipation of the days ahead kept us calm and hopeful!!!
Finally the entire group met in manali, had a good meal and after a warm bath ,slept well to begin the cycle tour the next day.
Day 01_Manali to Kothi
We woke up really late, since we were tired with all the travelling fiascos and this day was planned as an acclimatisation ride day around manali.
Over a leisurely english breakfast, at one of the many quaint cafes in manali, Doc suggested that instead of spending the day riding around manali, let’s start the ride and cover up a small distance of the actual ride. It would acclimatise us as well as help in deduction of the tough kms ahead!!
So it was decided over fried eggs, cornflakes and coffee that we would ride upto kothi, 13kms from manali, so that we would get a good feel of our rented cycles and also a fair idea of the tough climbs that were to follow.
Soon Shubham arranged for the cycles and by the time we left for Kothi it was 3 pm. So we felt that we would reach kothi latest by 5 pm .
As soon as we were out of manali city and the crazy weekend traffic, we realised the hard days that lay ahead of us. A steady climb started immediately towards kothi. Shantish and Sid realised that their cycles had a few niggles which had to be attended to immediately. So the rest of us proceeded ahead and they both waited for the cycle mechanic to fix their rides. As soon as we were about 4/5 kms away from manali, the grand views exposed themselves to us….
The first views of the the surroundings
The tall mountains, the cascading rivulets, the greenery and of course the hordes of tourists!!!! After a nice climb we stopped for a hot cup of tea since we were climbing really well towards the destination. After recharging ourselves with himachali chay…we proceeded further … Shailesh was riding a geared cycle for the first time ever , (we were amazed at his spirit), so we had to keep giving him the right instructions so that he would sustain till the end happily.
After passing through a gorge on one side and the great mountain ranges on the other, we found a decent looking place called the apple tree to halt for the night. After deciding the tariffs over hot coffee, we were happy to park our cycles after a good climb of 13 kms. It really gave us an idea of what was to come in the entire tour. Sub 10 degree temperature accompanied by wind made the ride quite chilly. After a few photos and some quick calls(since we would be out of mobile range for the next few days till keylong) we freshened up. Thankfully, Shantish and Sid got their cycles up and going soon and they too joined us at the Apple tree resort.
Kothi was a good decision
After a lovely dinner of fried trout and some local mutton, we called it a day only to wake up to a tough climb to rohtang.
Day 02_kothi -marhi-rohtang-koksar-sissu
Shubham woke us up to take an early start to rohtang pass. After a quick boost of energy through peanut butter sandwiches and bananas, we headed towards the highly popular tourist spot …The Rohtang La.
The first pit stop was Gulaba…. This is a small check post where all vehicles need to stop for a check before heading to Rohtang.
After a quick photo op and a mouthful of chikkis, we proceeded on the narrow road towards the next pit stop , Marhi. This particular stretch was scary for me because of the narrow stretch, heavy tourist traffic from the right, deep gorge and valleys on the left and of course the ascents!! I was almost on the verge of giving up the ride there itself. Something made me feel that..This is it!!! I am going to fall in the gorge or get hit by a speeding vehicle….. I could feel the breathlessness suddenly…Probably it was just something playing on my mind but after a stop for checking our saturation levels on the pulse oxy meter and also pulse/heart rates on our monitors made us feel calm. Both the levels were pretty okay still. That comforting feeling got me back in the groove. Some more energy through a snack of boiled eggs and a stop to chat and thus calm our nerves,and we were 10/12 kms from Marhi.
Abhi and Doc trekked the last 2/3 kms to marhi with their cycles on their shoulders for some additional adventure rush!!!
A yummy brunch of channa puri , refreshment stop and the grand Rohtang awaited us. It was a grand sight. Winding roads right in front of us disappearing into the sky above!!! We really had to push ourselves for the tough climb that lay ahead of us….. It was quite overcast and cloudy and we fervently prayed that it shouldn’t rain in addition to the prevalent cold temperature that was already troublesome.
The Pit stop at Marhi
Soon everyone started pedalling at a constant and comfortable cadence and slowly but surely cleared up the long ascending loops. Short breaks for water, getting back the breath, asking the well being of one another and soon we were among the clouds.
Suddenly everyone realised that phone network was available….So everyone called their near and dear ones back home.
Harsh conditions at Rohtang Climb
Again back on track, we were lost in the dark clouds, strong winds and low temperature….. And then it happened….. A few drops of rains turned into hail in no time….. Battling the odds of hail, wind and cold we somehow reached the top with the entire body going into super freeze!!! I was imagining that I would definitely lose a few fingers due to frost bite…But Doc laughed it off and asked me to continue till we finally reached the top of the Rohtang pass. Shockingly there was a traffic jam here too!!!! I desperately needed a hot cup of tea/ coffee/ soup to get myself back in a comfortable body temperature. I saw a few vendors who were selling hot coffee but I was not carrying any form of cash with me so I requested the guy to give me some hot coffee on credit till the rest of the gang joined me for the same. He was generous enough to do that….After being a little charged up by the coffee and the emotion of climbing up the rohtang ,we had to show it through a few photos!!!!!
‘HIGH’ up in the air at Rohtang
Next on the cards was a ‘downhill off roading session’ till Koksar.
God!!! This was the hardest downhill I have ever done…The rain had made the track muddy, a rally of powerful suv s was further adding to the difficulty with those guys vrooming past us through the muck and of course the ‘bullet biker gangs’ were omnipresent!!!
We had to descend this really carefully as one wrong move and it would have been fatal!!! The cold weather was making us shiver and hence the cycle more wobbly too. This was a real test and thankfully all of us passed it. The most famous ‘water crossing’ was encountered on the way down to koksar. Basically it’s a path of stones over which ankle deep water keeps flowing. It’s a popular photo op for all who pass through this…. Most of the bikes and cycles pass through it in the first attempt but a few take a tumble in the cold flowing water providing some comic relief to the observers!!! This is a really bad downhill/off roading track as per me….the rain and the slush further added to the agony. We were all shivering while descending due to which keeping the cycles in control was even more difficult because of the shaking!!!
We all crossed it without any event and finally arrived at koksar much to everyone’s relief. A plate of steamed momos was shared along with hot lemon tea got our bodies back in a comfortable temperature zone….. There is again a check post at koksar. So after declaring our names at the checkpoint we proceeded further to Sissu where we would be staying at a home stay facility. This was the best stretch in the whole day. 11 kms of a up and down road with the river on one side and the mountains in other with almost no traffic made us really appreciate the beautiful nature around us. We saw the milestone of Sissu saying 0 km and were happy to have ended the day’s tough ride but Shubham asked us to cycle further up 3kms to reach the accomodation place!!! That point of time I felt like cursing him!!!!! We were so looking forward to end the day on a good note and even a Kilometre extra felt like a burden.
Soon we arrived at the cherry home stay to be welcomed by some yummy mint lemon tea. A quick bath with luke warm water due to electricity failures and we were ready for a great home cooked meal by the host family. Before dinner, Shubham showed his massaging skills and Sid showed his ticklish side!!!! The dinner was easily the best meal in the entire trip. A short walk to digest the yummy food and we were back into the comforts of a soft bed and thick blankets in the chilly surrounds.
Since we were told that it would be a majorly uphill downhill ride and one of the short distance ride today, we had the rare privilege of waking up late. So after a ‘late’ start at 7 am, we prepared breakfast ourselves in the Host’s kitchen. That was a fun experience….. Peanut butter jam sandwiches, scrambled eggs and chay!!!!
Post breakfast we gave a quick wash to the cycles to remove the previous days dirt and headed towards the Tandi bridge . It’s a lovely descent to Tandi after the first few ups and downs along Sissu. Tandi bridge is over the confluence of 2 rivers , the Chandra and the Bhaga , which combine to flow as ChandraBhaga or the Chenab.This was the best patch so far. Not pedalling even for a kilometre had already become a privilege and we were being treated to such, for almost 10 kms!!
After a snack break at Tandi, we started a simple climb towards Keylong. The prospect of phone range and availability of wi fi made us cycle a bit faster than usual!!!
After reaching the view point at keylong, we descended into the keylong market to find a cafe which would serve us lunch and offer us wi fi!!!. We dreaded the descent because it meant an ascent after lunch!!!! Thankfully after a long search we found a cafe that served a good lunch, had a wi fi connection and was closer to the the next exit to the manali leh highway!!! A good lunch of Chicken and mixed vegetables along with watching a typical bollywood movie on the local cable network added to the fun. It was really such a relaxing moment. Soon everyone was busy with updates on social media and making calls as we would again be out of mobile range for 4 days at least.
The post lunch ride was a long one!!!! We went on climbing steadily towards our stay for the day at jispa. After climbing the stingri village, then began a smooth downhill to jispa.Here we met another group from Pune who was doing the same route. So after exchanging a few pleasantries and encouraging one another, everyone got back into their own zones.
Shubham had put us all up in a dormitory facility which we didn’t particularly find comfortable. After yet another hard day , we were expecting a comfortable stay if not a luxurious one!! It was a dingy dormitory which gave us a very claustrophobic feeling. Our tiredness immediately turned into irritation. Also many of us realised some small niggles in their individual rides. So a feeling of resentment was building up. Hence after a few altercations and discussion, we shifted to another facility which was more comfortable than the original one. The riders shifted to the better place. We also had to repair, lube , and do basic maintenance of the cycles so that the further rides would be easier.
After all this , we headed for a meal of thukpa and roti sabji, which was by now a staple diet.
An early night again and we were off to our dreams of a great home cooked meal and our beds back home……
Day04_ Jispa-Darchu-Patsio-Zing Zing Bar
Again an early start….This time it was the team who woke up shubham!!!
We headed for darchu which is about 4 kms away from jispa. After a breakfast of omelette and lemon tea, we started the gradual climb towards Patsio. Although the climb was comparatively gradual, what made the ride difficult was the quality and condition of the ‘road’. Full of potholes and dirt track made the ride difficult than what it actually was.A few photo op stops , again riding through water streams , the passing of army convoys along the way and we had reached a small lake at patsio.
We were so tired by then , that sitting by the lake with the feet immersed in the ice cold water actually brought some relief!!
We all sat down for yet another round of peanut butter sandwiches since the omelette at darchu had digested long back along the way!!! We were told that zing zing bar would be another 22 kms away from patsio. Then the milestone said otherwise…It said that it was just 9 kms away. Never have we felt so good in this ride!!! The thought of having to ride for a lesser distance got back the enthusiasm to continue the ride.
3/4 days back there had been a minor landslide on the way from patsio to zing zing bar. As a result we had to negotiate through the stone filled road, water crossings and keep climbing .
Zing zing bar, although sounds like a fun name, there is nothing fun about it!!! It’s one of the highest elevated locations of the trip. It’s a random name given to that place by the Indian Army, is what the locals had to say, when we asked them about the origin of the name.
All along the climb we were realising the elevation since every pedal was taking away our energy. After a lot of effort and an average speed of 5 km/hr , we reached a dhabba for lunch at Zing Zing Bar. Completely exhausted we all fell asleep in the dhaba till the food was being prepared.
Just a word of caution for anyone who is attempting this particular ride….. It’s an extremely tiring affair with pretty harsh weather/climatic conditions , simple basic monotonous food, and of course the possibility of AMS hitting you anytime.
After a power nap post lunch we decided to go a further distance of 4 kms for better staying option. This 4 km ride was actually a 6 km ride which turned to be one of the most laborious ride I have done till date.
We were huffing and puffing all along this seemingly never ending road. We were already at 14000 feet above the sea level and those further 6 kms felt like an eternity. There were so many beautiful views all around, snow capped mountains, flowing rivers, winding roads, clear blue skies…… But we were in no frame of mind to appreciate it as much as it deserved. Shantish was leading the entire day, followed by myself and then Doc.Abhi and Sid walked for a few kilometers and cycled alternately and reached the dhaba called Peace cafe. Shailesh had a few symptoms of AMS at patsio so everybody advised him to take a ride in the back up vehicle. I just crashed at the Dhabba…It was named the Peace Cafe. I felt a mix of emotions …a sense of relief of having ended the day’s ride, exhaustion, a sense of pride of being able to sustain yet another tough day, a hint of AMS level 01, and looking forward to some sleep!!!
Everyone just crashed on the platform beds , which is a typical feature of all the dhabas on the way. Unfortunately I was slightly dehydrated and was feeling a bit nauseous. I had absolutely no interest in food but had a cup of hot tea. It was here that I realised the gravity of the entire tour. Extreme conditions, tiresome ride, very very basic staying facilities, monotonous food…..The only respite was the company of great buddies. If at all anyone wishes to do this ride, be sure to have some known co riders with you who will encourage you to keep going, who will be concerned about you if you aren’t feeling well, who will advise you right when to take a break when to push the pedals, the ones you can depend on in these adverse conditions.
After skipping dinner (only me) we had a really early night. Everyone was in bed and blankets at 6.30pm itself . But because of the thin air and the altitude nobody could rest really well. Also after looking at the toilet facility everybody had a doubt of cleaning their systems next day morning. Thankfully there was continuous flowing water from the nearby river. Inspite of the water being cold it was a good feeling that we could avail flowing water….. This may sound trivial but in trips like these one realises the importance of daily comforts that you take for granted in every day life. Small things like A warm bed at home, healthy home cooked food, clean and hygienic toilet facility, friends and family being a phone call away, a nice afternoon nap, etc start seeming so very important!!!!!
Day 05_Zing Zing Bar- Baracha la -Sarchu
We woke up to an early morning sunrise making the tips of the snow cladded mountains looking like gold!!!
The schedule for today was the summit to the 2nd pass of the tour, the Baracha La. This is at 15,500 ft above the sea level, completely surrounded by snow. Shubham encouraged us saying that since we have successfully spent the night at 14000 ft, we were well acclimatised by now and we could easily summit the pass.
Shantish was the leader again. Me and Sid decided to climb up and stop at every 1 km, with the milestones at markers, for rest and water break. It was a total climb of 11 kms. So we decided to take 11 stops of approximately 3 minutes each to refresh. So an additional time of 30 minutes to be added to the time taken for climbing. Trust me, all these calculations start playing in your head. Each minute spent idle, cools down the body and suddenly makes you realise the low temperature around. It is absolute essential to keep the body warm for maximum efficiency while cycling. We were continuously being cheered on by the passing bikers which were a lot in numbers. It was a good boost to be egged on by random people.
Going by the kilometer, me and Sid were slowly but surely cycling towards the destination.Each passing kilometre was making us wheeze and out of breath. Every Time we stopped we cursed the terrain and also praised ourselves for the efforts that we were putting in.
Standing along the road we could see the long winding roads below, the earlier milestones and markers at lower levels . We were really amazed at what a human can do if one is physically equipped and mentally strong.
But, the last 2 kilometers became unbearable and both of us decided to board the back up vehicle. Soon we all gathered at the topmost point done till date by any of us …..
The Baracha La at 15500 ft above the sea level. Woahhh!!!! What an incredible feeling… A sense of achievement, pride, joy etc came rushing…… But not for long….Since we started feeling the cold!!!!!! A quick mandatory photo shoot and we were soon descending the barachala to head for lunch. It was again a case of bad descent….. Steep slopes, roads through blocks of ice and snow , potholes, dirt track made the ride quite tough although scenic. Now we were closer to the Ladakh region……The landscape was changing drastically….It was more arid, desert like with the occasional water bodies.
After a hot bowl of Maggi and a power nap, we headed towards Sarchu , a tiny settlement on the border of Himachal and J and K. This is a favorite stopover for most of the road trippers/bikers since it is exactly half way of the entire 550 kms of the difficult ride.
The road to Sarchu was majorly flat and a very gradual downslope. It was a welcome relief after slogging it for the past 2 days. A tarred patch along the slope was almost orgasmic!!!!!
We reached Sarchu well before the anticipated time. 2.30 pm and we were having a cup of hot lemon tea at a cafe called the Le Meridian in Sarchu.
We were happy to know that a temporary army camp did allow the occasional call back home. So with the army man , Capt. Abhijit with us we made a trip to the camp for calling up home and letting then know our well being. Unfortunately we got the bad news that my father was not well back and had been hospitalized.
I had to take the difficult decision of turning back from sarchu and heading back home. The main reason for this was that we would be out of mobile range for 3 more days till Leh and I was not comfortable with that thought at all even though it was not a matter of utmost emergency back home.
My friends , being the awesome friends that they are and will be, took the decision of accompanying me for the journey back home. In fact, when someone asked Abhi,Sid and Doc, that Amit can head back but you three can continue and complete the ride, all they had to say was – we are such close friends…His dad is almost like our Dad and we feel that he needs us at this time. We will be turning back ,all of us together!!!It was a truly emotional moment for me. To know that the kind of support systems that there are in time like these, makes you feel happy and strong.
So the decision was made….A tough one but a necessary one. We headed back , part hitchhiking, part road travel and then a flight back well in time to tend to my ailing father.
To summarize, like I mentioned at the beginning, this has been a tiring but a humbling experience. It has taught us to value the small comforts that we take for granted in everyday life. It has opened our eyes to the harsh conditions that some people are living daily. It has offered us some amazing views that shall be etched forever in our minds. It has taught us persistence, patience, mental toughness and the importance of physical fitness. We have new found respect for the truck drivers who manage to maneuver their vehicles for services that are needed by others.
This ride has answered the classic question for me_ Are you a mountain person or a Beach person- I have found my answer- I am definitely not a mountain person. I found the mountains to be too daunting and intimidating. They definitely say that ‘ please dont mess with us’ !!! I did not feel welcome- not in a bad way but in a way that my respect and awe for nature has increased exponentially being in this region. I felt proud and happy that each one of us could have completed this ride successfully if we didn’t have to turn back, which turned out to be a wise decision in hindsight. The days of planning and training were put to apt use for the days that we were there . There is apprehension of attempting such rides again but definitely no regrets!!!!
So here’s to the Mis adventures of the Manali Leh Cycle ride……Cheers…until next time!!!!