The high way to Leh: Himalayan journey

By Andrew Bain 10 March 2015
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The Himalayan route from Manali to Leh in north-western India reaches altitudes of more than 5000m. Doing it on a bicycle will have you gasping for every breath, but this could well be the ultimate two-wheeled adventure.

ON THE ROAD to Rohtang La in north-west India, cars and trucks idle in a soup of mud. Some are bogged, others blocked. Many have been here all night, trapped in a traffic jam that snakes more than 10km down the mountain.

As we weave through the vehicles on our bicycles, a turbaned head leans out of a truck and tuts, ‘crazy, crazy, crazy’. All but swimming through mud that reaches almost to our hubs, and with kilometres still to ride to a pass whose name translates as ‘Piles of Corpses’ – in reference to the number of travellers who’ve died here – it’s tempting to think he might be right. But he’s not.

Rohtang La is the first pass we’ll cross on our cycling journey from Manali to Leh, on what is inarguably one of the most spectacular and difficult roads in the world. In eight days we’ll pedal around 500km, crossing five high Himalayan passes, including what’s said to be the second-highest road pass in the world. It’s a highway that’s quite literally the high way.

It’s a ride that will take us from the monsoons of Himachal Pradesh to the parched plateau of Ladakh, and from this deep mud on Rohtang La to the equally deep sand of the high desert. In nine days we’ll climb more than 8000m, the equivalent of cycling from sea level to the summit of Mt Everest. What’s not to like?

Rock faces and road rage on the way to Leh

As we pedal out of Manali, rock faces reach down to the road, and the mist-blurred forest is as tangled as dreadlocks. For the better part of two days we will only ride uphill, crawling for 50km to 3978m Rohtang La, almost two vertical kilometres above Manali.

Around us, trucks and cars play the usual Indian game of rageless road rage, horns blasting and brakes optional. Below one sharp bend, a truck lies mangled in the rocks of a waterfall. And yet, as I ride, I feel somehow removed from the maelstrom. There’s nothing here I have to dodge; everything has to dodge me. It’s comforting, in a fatalistic kind of way.

Bending through hairpin after hairpin, the road climbs above Manali, threading between boulders the size of city buildings into Marhi, a cobbled-together travellers’ village on alpine slopes 1000m below Rohtang La. It’s here that we camp, with the road above lit long into the night by the headlights of vehicles trapped in the muddy jam.

The next morning we’re quickly among them, squeezing through narrow gaps and riding at the road’s edge, balanced above sheer drops of several hundred metres. My brakes grind and there are times when my bike’s wheels are so clogged with mud, they refuse to turn. We push almost as much as we ride, peering back over the roofs of the trucks and cars to Marhi and, far below now, Manali.

After three manic, muddy hours, we crest the broad pass, where the road changes more than valleys. The pass is like a watershed, except that the water being parted is the monsoon. The green lands are behind us; the brown and red deserts of Ladakh beckon ahead.

As we roll off the pass, the world begins to move at speed again. It’s taken a day and a half to climb 50km, but it will take just minutes to descend 20km, flying past trucks and buses as we go. Around us, the Spiti and Lahoul mountains stand higher and more impressive than anything on the other side of Rohtang La – we’ve truly arrived in the Himalayas.

The descent delivers us into the wide gorge of the Chandra River, its dry, rocky slopes the same brown colour as the furious water. Tiny flat patches of land hold crops of beans and potatoes, and in the middle of the river, the metal skeleton of a bridge lies folded and crumpled by floods that days before swept away bridges, shops and lives.

Highway rising in India

For two days we roll through valleys, the highway rising and falling across the slopes, but never out of earshot of the river, which flits between shades of grey and brown. This side of Rohtang La, traffic is light – just a few trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, herds of goats and our peloton of bikes. For long periods we ride without seeing a vehicle. It’s like finding a part of India that India itself hasn’t yet found.

Inside this inner maze of valleys, it’s like being in the eye of the cycling storm. By the end of the fourth day, almost halfway to Leh, we’ve still climbed just one pass. But as we camp between the braids of a river at tiny Patseo, four passes rise ahead of us, queued like giant hurdles.

From Patseo it’s a 1200m climb to the first of the passes: 4900m Baralacha La. Out of the valley, the road kinks and folds its way up to Zing Zing Bar, a motley collection of teahouses that has little zing and no bars. The slopes are now so barren it’s difficult to imagine anything surviving here, and yet birds hop from rock to rock and lizards squirt between hidey-holes.

As we continue to climb, the air becomes noticeably thinner – when I try to drink or eat, I then can’t breathe – and it feels as though the only oxygen here is inside my tyres. Would it be bad form to suck out a few psi? When we finally rise over the pass, I simply flop, laying back on rocks and contemplating what a pleasure it would be to never move again.

As becomes typical on this road, the pass heralds another transformation of landscape. Ahead are iron-rich mountains, their slopes textured like freshly brushed sand, with patches of red, orange and brown scree looking like ink blots across the mountains. At times I have to remind myself it’s not an art display. Instead it’s some of the most inhospitable mountain country in the world.

If the view has a soft focus, the road does not. The descent from Baralacha La bucks and kicks its way towards the grassed Sarchu valley, lurching over loose, treacherous stones. At speed, one rider, Stine, is pitched from her bike, tearing skin from her arms, legs, cheek and chin. A rib aches, possibly fractured. An eye will be black by morning. But this hard country breeds hard travellers, and she’s quickly up, pedalling on towards sun-bleached Sarchu, where we’ll camp for the night at the edge of a wind-eroded gorge.

Already, at an altitude of 4250m, the effect is like having someone constantly sitting on your chest. Every breath and every movement is an effort, and yet the next day we must ride over two passes, climbing above 5000m for the very first time.

Gata Loops and tough cycling on the Indian trail

It begins at the Gata Loops, a name that’s been scaring us for days. Here, 21 hairpin bends corkscrew towards 4800m Nakli La, seeming almost to tie the highway into knots. What we don’t know is that the real climbing begins at the top of the Loops, as the road straightens but steepens.

We grind on to the pass, where mountains encircle us, then dip 200m into a barren bowl of scree and rock framing a single teahouse. We lunch, drowse in the weak sun and reluctantly ride on. Another pass awaits, six kilometres and 400m of climbing away.

The best of the day is beyond this pass, as we head down towards camp, though for once the beauty and the spectacle of the landscape overshadow even the pure thrill of a descent. Around us are red mountains eroded into shapes you couldn’t invent – something like Utah with a Hindi accent – and again I’m tempted to think it the most beautiful section of road yet.

By the time we arrive at camp, by a junction of streams near the military outpost of Pang, we’ve been cycling for more than nine hours, climbing 1200m and never dipping below 4200m. There are hardened cyclists in the group calling it the toughest day of riding in their life. Others are simply calling it the toughest day of their life, period. Most are asleep by 8pm.

Buddhist lands of the Indus Valley

From Pang, it’s a winding climb to the pancake-flat Mori Plains, a plateau that, at times, resembles a gibber desert. Here, for the first time, we ride on flat terrain as the highway horseshoes between mountains. A line of trekkers forms a slow-moving ant trail in the distance, and a shepherd leads a herd of goats across the sun-bright surface of a saltpan.

On the plain, the highway is intermittently there and then not there. The long winters in this region – the road is often open for only three months a year – are brutal, buckling and destroying sections of the road each year, consuming them in desert dust.

When the road is there, it’s so new it’s the finest, smoothest bit of road thus far. When it’s not, we’re forced onto makeshift sandy tracks, stirring up so much dirt we’re like dust storms moving across the plateau.

At lunchtime we turn off the highway, bouncing overland to a campsite near the shores of Tsokar Lake, a saline lake rimmed with salt piles. Pinched between Buddhist chortens – the Buddhist lands of the Indus Valley are now very near – the camp is set beside a desert spring, creating an oasis of grass and wildflowers cradled between rust-red mountains.

Five Himalayan passes done

I sleep out on the grass this night and wake surrounded by a yak herd that’s wandered in through the faint dawn. Light rain is falling, becoming infinitely more threatening by the time we’ve pedalled to the base of the climb to Taglang La, the final impediment between Tsokar Lake and Leh. Above us, the pass is obscured by storm clouds, with rain and snow looking likely to hit us as we climb.

At 5360m above sea level, Taglang La is touted as the second-highest motorable road pass in the world, eclipsed only by 5602m Khardung La, just the other side of Leh. Recent GPS data has cast doubt on this claim, suggesting Khardung La may actually be 5359… a single metre lower than Taglang La. This morning, we may just be cycling to the highest bit of accessible road in the world.

Even if it is the highest, however, it also has the lowest reputation. Said to be the steepest and roughest section of the highway, it’s a switchbacks-be-damned climb. The road is like a blade-cut across the slopes where, as we ride, road workers still chip rocks from the cliffs to rebuild the highway.

In reality, the climb is less fierce than its reputation, and finally we round a cliff to find a tangle of prayer flags: Taglang La, where fine snow flakes fall. The storm hasn’t eventuated. Leh is below, in the Indus Valley, but it is forgotten in the combined pleasure and pain of the pass. My legs don’t hurt, but my lungs seem to have gone on strike – to breathe is to almost inhale India.

Slowly, other riders straggle up to the pass, and I find myself strangely emotional. Five Himalayan passes since Manali, and we’ve just crawled to the top of the last and highest one. I’m on top of the world. Almost literally.

The essentials

The Ride: Exodus runs a 17-day Manali to Leh ride, beginning and ending in Delhi. It’s a two-day bus and train trip to Manali, from where it’s a nine-day ride to Leh, with an option to continue on to Khardung La for additional altitude kudos. The trip costs from $2275 and runs from July to August. See for information.

Getting There: Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi daily, with services also from Brisbane and Perth. See

Essential gear: Hardtail Trek bikes can be hired from Exodus and are well suited to the terrain. If taking your own bike, a hardtail mountain bike is sufficient. Warm clothing is required for evenings, with campsites as high as 4600m. A buff or similar is useful to avoid breathing in fumes and dust.