Sunday, September 14, 2014

Manali to Leh: A Bicycle Tour

Manali to Leh is a dream route for most cycling enthusiast.The route presents challenges of high altitude, freezing temperatures, uncertain weather, and long stretches of winding roads. Despite all these and more known difficulties when we started to plan cycling on this route, five of us fellow cyclists decided to join, all from Bhuj Bicycling Club. Me, Dr. Devanand Parmar, Shreyas Negi, Mahendra Yadav and Bhavesh Dave committed for the job. We started to prepare about 3 months before the planned date of 22nd August. Our daily training included about 20-30 km of cycle riding in early morning and about 50 km of riding on Sundays. However we later realized that no training can prepare one for the rigours of the Manali Leh route. Anyway, soon this time passed and the day of journey arrived.

Starting from Bhuj, on 19th August

We had decided to go with a support vehicle, Innova, which we hired from Bhuj. Two of the bikes were kept on roof while 3 were hanged on hatch with a bicycle carrier. Me, Mahendra Yadav and Bhavesh Dave travelled in the Innova and reached Leh on 21st August after 3 days of tiring road journey. Where Dr. Devanand and Shreyas Negi were already waiting. We started our journey on next day.

Our bikes at Hotel Beas, Manali

Starting point: Hotel Beas, Manali

Day 1(22nd August), Manali to Marhi (34km): We started from Hotel Beas, a Himachal Pradesh tourism department undertaking. We found good smooth roads of the first day, however continuous 34 km of climb was not easy.

We reached Marhi after about 6 hours of riding. The same distance would have took about 1 hour on flat roads. Marhi is a small village made up of few dhabas serving tourists.
Bhaveshbhai with our driver Hiren
 Weather at Marhi changed in the evening, clouds suddenly came down at land level, visibility was zero now and rain started pouring.

Marhi weather in evening

Dr. Devanand, Shreyas Negi and Bhavesh Dave at Marhi  (from left to right)

I started to have headache, which was later joined by abdominal discomfort and nausea (early signs of altitude sickness due to low oxygen at high altitude). Marhi is located at 3300m altitude. However condition improved after taking one dose of Diamox (for altitude sickness) along with a pain killer.  We had my BSNL phone working at Marhi, but only from top of a small temple there, which we all used to call home one by one.

Day 2 (Marhi to Sissu, via Rohtang Pass)(50km): We started early in the morning around 6:00 am. Roads upto Rohtang pass were mixed bag, with some good roads and few bad stretches. We face 18 km of continuous climb till we reached the top.

Marhi and Marhi Nala (lower one), photograph taken from Marhi Rohtang road
Apples were our preferred food on the go. Dr. Devanand

That's me

At Rohtang Pass: Shreyas Negi, Mahendra Yadav, Dr. Devanand and Bhavesh Dave (left to right)
We ate some food at dhabas on Rohtang pass. They serve meggi, parathas, eggs and tea mainly, which was going to be the only food available at most dhabas on the way. Roads downhill from Rohtang were mostly bad, tarmac was nonexistent, however there were no rains so we were saved from mud. Downhill ride was a great fun on our mountain bikes. I was first to reach Khoksar followed by Mahendrabhai and Bhaveshbhai. I decided to wait for the remaining two while Mahendrabhai and Bhaveshbhai continued towards Sissu. After waiting for about 45 minutes I decided to move towards Sissu.

One of the short cut on downhill from Rohtang to Khoksar

From Khoksar to Sissu roads were mostly flat (or slight downhill), road condition improved and tarmac was easy to find. At Sissu we all gathered (except Mahendrabhai who was first to reach there), and started to look for Mahendrabhai who already had found a nice hotel with attached bathroom and hot water (not common on this route). Except to BSNL postpaid phones (one with me and the other with Shreyas Negi) none of our mobile phones were working which was causing communication problems by now. Even BSNL connection was not available continuously.

Mahendra Yadav relaxing at Chandra River near Sissu

Day 3 Sissu to Jispa (56km): We started to move along the Chandra river going downhill till Tandi (8km), where it meets Bhaga River to form Chandra-Bhaga (Chenab). Tandi has a army transit camp and a Petrol pump (which will not be seen till 360 km now). Roads till Tandi were real bad, narrow at few places and risky.

Road condition near Tandi
After Tandi we started to climb upwards till Jispa. I was second to reach after Mahendrabhai, and search for him started again. Dr. Devanand arrived soon to aid in the search. At this time I received call from Mahendrabhai that he had reached Darcha, one stop ahead of our destination, as he was told by some that hotels in Jispa were closed. However we were able to find luxury accommodation in Jispa at Hotel Padma. Soon other arrived followed by our support vehicle, which was sent to retrieve Mahendrabhai.

Yak as seen near Hotel Padma, Jispa
Day 4 Jispa to Zing Zing Bar (39km steady climb): We had continuous climb today till zing zing bar as we were on the way to Barlachha La. Landscape changed as we enter the Ladakh district of J&K, after darcha. Green valleys of Himachal suddenly disappeared and dry mountains raised their heads.

 Today was a tough day, as we had to climb continuously. We reached our destination at around 2 pm. On the way we found beautiful Deepak Tal before Patseo. There was nice bamboo dhaba there with accommodation available, however our destination was higher and we moved on after having tea there.

Beautiful Deepak Tal
On the way to Zing Zing Bar

On the way to Zing Zing Bar
Famous Zing Zing Bar
Zing zing bar was nothing but collection of few dhaba at small flat place on the way to Barlachha La. However at that time it felt like heaven. We booked 3 two person semi luxury tents with attached toilet (a pit with indian style toilet), however you have to carry water buckets yourself. We were tired of eating same food at every dhaba, so we cooked Khichadi, with rice and daal we were carrying with us, using dhaba owners equipments. In evening Bhaveshbhai started to have severe headache and soon were feeling breathless. Fortunately we were carrying diamox and mini oxygen cylinder, and that helped a lot, otherwise we would have been forced to descend at lower altitude.

Day 5 Zing zing bar to Brandy bridge via Barlachha La: Today was going to be a long day as we were planning to ride about 72km, so that we can reach brandy bridge, just before the start of infamous Gata Loops. We climbed about 15km before we reached the Barlachha La. The signboard at Barlachha La was being painted and we failed to identify that and started to descend. Roads downward were mostly good with few bad stretches. We soon reached Killing Sarai where descend stopped, and almost flat, straight (or mild downhill) roads with wind support started till Sarchu.

Flat roads near Sarchu
Beautiful sand structures near Sarchu

Sand Structures near Sarchu (more such structures are near Pang)
We reached sarchu at around 12:30, and decided to take lunch there. Everyone arrived soon however Mahendrabhai was last to reach about an hour late as he had tyre burst in his hybrid bike with thin tyres ( 700 x 32c), so he had to use support vehicle to reach Sarchu.

After lunch we started again to reach brandy nala, roads were good and we had good supporting wind till half way, after which road turned and remaining cycling of the day was against wind.

There was a flat place near river at brandy bridge where we were planning to use our tents. Mahendrabhai reached there first in support vehicle and had already found a nice flat section of road for tents. Me with help of Shreyasbhai and Bhaveshbhai pitched our two tents. Mahendrabhai changed his burst tyre and then as he was not feeling well, took rest in support vehicle. Wind was very strong in the evening, which made us worry about our tents, however they survived. In the evening I found that my rear tyre was flat, so we change the tube. We were carrying portable gas stove and ready to eat pack of Dal Makhani (that required only heating for few minutes) which we ate with bread we procured from a dhaba on the way.

Shreyasbhai working on tent at brandy bridge
At that night first time in my life I saw our milky way galaxy in the night sky. I tried to take a snap of the galaxy holding camera in my hand and seating on a rock, however to my surprise I was feeling breathless in that position, as air pressure was low at that altitude and my lung were not able to expand fully while seating with hands locked in a position. View was amazing but weather outside was very cold so we moved inside the tent very soon. After some breathing difficulties I was able to fall asleep late in the night.

Day 6 Brandy bridge to Whisky Nala via Gata Loops and Nakee La: We were planning to cross Nakee La and Lachulung La and reach Pang, however day turned out to be more tough then we thought. Gata loops are infamous 21 hairpin bends that take you from 4190mts to 4630mts of height in distance of eight kms. I took about two hours to cross gata loops at my relaxed pace, taking many photographs on the way. However climb didn't end here as we still has to climb upto Nakee La. There were many shortcuts at Gata loops, I tried one but climb was too steep, and I had to walk, I felt even more tired after the shortcut and avoided taking anymore. When I looked back I found Bhaveshbhai walking on one after one shortcuts, we tried to warn him however he preferred to walk.

Few loops of the infamous Gata Loops
Upper end of the Gata Loops

After Gata loops we were climbing the hills in circumferential manner so that we were not able to see what lies after the turn. Soon I was hoping to see Nakee La after every turn, however hopes turned out to be futile too many times before I reached Nakee La. Me, Shreyas Negi and Dr. Devanand reached almost together. Mahendrabhai were few turns behind and Bhaveshbhai were no where to be seen. We started to climb down soon as staying long at high altitude was not a good idea.

Shreyasbhai and Devanandbhai at Nakee La

We started climb down, and soon reached whisky nala (downhill is short as it doesn't go as low as we climbed). After waiting for about an hour, our support vehicle became visible on the downhill route carrying two bicycle. Both Mahendrabhai and Bhaveshbhai had climbed in the vehicle. As both of them were tired and not willing to ride anymore that day, we decided to halt at whisky nala. We booked one large tent with six beds on floor. There were two toilet areas at some distance, basically open pits covered by about 4 feet tall wooden sticks and cloth curtains.

Bob and Claire Rogers with their tandem bike
We met two other cyclist travelling in opposite direction (Leh to Manali), on their tandem bike. They are travelling around the world since last 25 years. This was first time I saw a tandem bike (except circus). However it was my lucky day as two more tandem bikes with four French and German cyclists arrived later on the day, followed by a Finnish geologist having a long beard on a regular touring bicycle. So the day was like having mini conference of cyclists at whisky nala. However this cheerfulness didn't last long as Bhaveshbhai soon announced that he is abandoning the trip as he wasn't able to ride anymore, which prompted Mahendrabhai to join him, after long efforts we were not able to convince them and they decided  to leave next morning in whatever vehicle they get. At the height of 4750mts, whisky nala was our highest altitude night halt till now. I was not able to sleep till 1:00 am at night, during which I had move out of tent about 3 times to make water. Every time I came back in the tent I was shivering due to cold and was not feeling comfortable even under thick blanket, which itself was feeling cold. At that time I gave up and took Alprazolam (sleeping pill), which helped me to fall asleep soon.

Day 7 Whisky Nala to Pang via lachulungla, 30km: We are only three today as Bhaveshbhai and Mahendrabhai had decided to leave the tour, and go back. This was easy day (relatively), as we had only 7.5km climb till lachulungla followed by a descend till Pang. We faced some mild snowfall on the climb, which was not bothering at all. The highlight of the day were beautiful sand structures that we saw on the way to Pang. Mountains in this region are made of sand and few rocks, that creates various shapes due to rain and wind. We spent lots of time doing photography, and took almost five hours to reach Pang, even with most of route was going downhill.

(curtsy Shreyas Negi)

Beautiful sand-structures near Pang
When we were about to reach Pang we met few other cyclists who started from Sarchu in the morning. We were literally in shock that they arrived from Sarchu to Pang in almost same time that we took in crossing just from Whisky Nala. However we later found out that they were on an organized tour, and most of them crossed Gata Loops, Nakee La and Lalchulung La sitting in their support vehicle, and started to ride only after crossing all the climbs. At Pang we stayed at guest rooms in army transit camp. After passing night in tents at Whisky, this guest room felt like heaven, as we were pampered with room heater and comfy beds. However still there was no continuous water supply and we had to do with one bucket per head that they provided.

Day 8 Pang to Debring, via Morey Plaines, 47kms: Today we had 6km of climb followed by almost flat to mild downhill roads till debring. Before we start, I found my bicycle was having flat rear wheel. So we spent about 10 minutes in changing the rear tube, I choose an old tube that was repaired at a bike shop in Manali when we arrived there. After fixing rear wheel back in place we found that that the Schrader valve of the tube was without its core (may still be resting at the bike shop), so we were not able to fill the air. After another 10 minutes we change the tube, this time with brand new one. This was second puncture in the same tyre. Finally we started around 7 am, about an hour late that usual. Weather was not good, sky was fully covered by clouds, we even found clouds at land level for a while. As soon as we completed the initial climb snowfall started, which wasn't mild this time. We took a cover in the support vehicle for few minutes, before deciding to start again.

Snowfall at the beginning of Morey plains
Morey plains is a long stretch of flat area, which is quite unusual at this altitude. Weather soon cleared and we were able to click few beautiful photographs of the nature.

Few clicks at Morey Plaines
We witnessed one accident on the road, when one bullet rider while trying to cross army trucks from left side, skid from the road margin. We stopped there and give as much first aid we could with the medicines we were carrying in the support vehicle. The rider was soon transferred to army transit camp at Pang. After about 5 and a half hour we reached debring. After staying at the whisky nala, we were not willing to pass another night in a tent, so decided to go to Tso Kar village near Tso Kar lake. The route was diversion from our plan so we climbed in support vehicle this time. This was a good decision as we found another good accommodation on this visit, in addition to the opportunity to click few more beautiful photographs. Tso kar lake has salty soil, (reminds ocean?).

At Tso Kar Lake
Salty soil at Tso Kar Lake

Tso Kar, changing weather in the evening
After the photography session in the evening, I decided to check the bikes, and guess... I had a flat tyre, in the same rear wheel. This time I was too tired of changing tubes, so decided to ride with the same punctured tube.

Day 9 Debring to Upshi via THE Tanglang La , 87 km: The night had been very cold, and we couldn't start from Tso kar before about 6:30am. We climbed in the support vehicle and reached upto Debring. Here I filled air in the rear tyre of my bike and we started what was going to be the toughest day of this tour. We had to climb about 22km till the top of the Tanglang la. Weather was chilly, we even faced snowfalls for about an hour, but we continued our climb. Road condition remained worse, and we took little more than five hours to reach the top.

Frozen water on the way to Tanglang La

The Tanglang La, A feet we all will cherish whole life.
After spending about 15minutes on the top, we started to climb down. Roads were very good on this side. Even though it was simple going downhill without much efforts, 64km was quite a distance, and we all were greatly tired when we reached Upshi. For the record I had to fill air in the rear tire for four times in about nine hour long ride. Upshi is located at the meeting point of Zanskar river with the great Indus river. We had a comfortable stay here as we were at lower altitude (comparatively), and nights were not freeze cold.

Day 10 Upshi to Leh,50km: We had a easy day, as we had almost flat roads, lower altitude, and comfortable weather. I needed to fill air only once in the way after one morning fill. We passed Thicksey monastery and Shey palace on the way.

Thicksey Monastery

Shey Palace
My rear wheel had more bad luck then I imagined. I was struck by a Maruti van driver just about 3 km before Leh. This led to bent wheel and bent luggage carrier. I had a somersault in the air but luckily no injury. This effectively ended our journey as we all climbed in the support vehicle after this.

Bent rim of the rear wheel and bent luggage carrier

End of the tour.

Few more snaps...... (click to enlarge)

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