In this second of the 5-part series on Mountain Cycling, Milind Date takes us down memory lane with a peek into the detailed itinerary of Pune-based cyclist, Dr. Ajay Nandgaonkar’s ‘Manali to Leh and Leh to Khardung La’ cycling trip in 2016. A week of cycling, the trip involved crossing several passes at altitudes of 15000 feet and above, repairing the bicycle en-route, and living under the sky in intensely cold and adverse weather in tents!
(First-person account as transcribed by Milind Date)
Day 1: July 30, 2016:
This was a well planned cycling expedition by Lifecycle from Pune. We all reached Manali by the evening of the 30th of July. Ashok Captain and Nachiket Joshi had fitted our bikes already. We test rode them in the night. New bikes were specially bought by Lifecycle and they were delivered at Manali. Ashok and Nachiket had gone ahead a week before this date to assemble the bikes. The bikes were TREK 4300.
Day 2: July 31, 2016
The highlight was a small trek to Anjani Mahadev. We had a warm up climb to the Hidimba Temple. The steep ride was easy for us because of all the practice we had put in Pune.
Day 3: August 1, 2016
Manali – Marhi
The “Bicycle Ride” begins! It was Manali to Marhi where we camped – 12 km before Rohtang Pass. Marhi was a beautiful climb on Day One.
Day 4: August 2, 2016
Marhi – Rohtang Pass – Gondhla
We crossed Rohtang Pass and then rode along the Chandra River from Khoksar to Sissu and then Gondhla.
Day 5: August 3, 2016
Gondhla – Tandi Bridge – Jispa
We continued to ride along the Chandra River till Tandi, where we crossed over the Tandi Bridge. Thereafter we rode next to the Bhaga River, across Keylong (the administrative centre of the Lahaul and Spiti district) till we reached Jispa which was the overnight halt.
Day 6: August 4, 2016
Jispa – Darcha (along the Bhaga River) – Patseo
Day 7: August 5, 2016
Patseo – Zingzingbar – Baralacha La – Sarchu – Brandy Nallah
The first highland plateau. The desert begins here. This part of the ride was long and winding to Brandy Nallah. The road conditions this day were pretty good. Sadly some of our folks started feeling altitude sickness and had to be sent to Leh in a car.
Some people who were riding rather well were tired by now – because they were way too fast and the road was deceptive. Steady riding is the key here! It was almost an unending road till the camp site. The best part of this ride was when we were on one of the mountain faces. Across the Nallah, far away, one could see the faster riders as small dots on the other face of the mountain.
Day 8: August 6, 2016
Brandy Nallah – Gata Loops – Nakeela Pass – Lachulungla Pass – Pang
This was the toughest climb day. At any cost we had to reach Pang because there was no place in between where we could camp. And then it was there … sleet and storm on top of the Lachulungla Pass. The gear I was carrying in my back pack (raincoat and trousers) came in handy here. Surely it’s quite tough to ride in such weather conditions.
One of our support guys was waiting at the top with a car in case people needed help in that storm. This guy is an ex-military person – very cool headed, and strong determination he had. He greeted us and asked if we needed to get into the car and go down. Some of us did. We stayed at a place called Kangla Jal. It was just rocks, sand and water. No trees. No vegetation. It was an unreal landscape to descend into. Another thing to note was that the storm and the sleet was only on top of the final pass. Rest of the day was just beautiful weather which helped the ride.
Day 9: August 7, 2016
Pang – Tsokar Lake
We climbed up from Kangla Jal via a winding long climb to reach the Pang Plateau. This is a very large and beautiful plateau at the height of 15000 feet. Initially, the road condition was excellent and the ride was a pleasure. But after about 15 km, the road was non-existent. It wasn’t really a road, it was just a prolonged mud patch. We also got a lot of head wind. We were riding into the wind. That made the ride harder along with the crazy condition of the road. But the surroundings made up for it. I specifically remember the stopover on this plateau for the breakfast. It was just brilliant. Then we left the road to reach the beautiful Tsokar Lake. The camp site was a dream. It was in the grasslands and there was a beautiful stream there too!
Day 10: August 8, 2016
Rest Day at Tsokar Lake
Clean your bikes. Service them. Stay back. Relax and enjoy the wonderful surroundings. Some of our riders were unwell this day. We got a huge snow storm in the night. Almost as bad that we felt that the tents would fly away. It was scary. Classic Himalayan uncertain weather!
Day 11: August 9, 2016
Tsokar Lake – Tanglangla Pass – Rumtse – Upshi
This was spectacular. The previous day’s storm and the fresh early morning snow had changed the high-land landscape. The mighty Tanglangla Pass at 17582 feet was staring at us. There was a risk of the road being blocked and a chance that we won’t be able to cross. This is the second highest pass in the world after all. The view was breath-taking. But the weather kept getting worse. It was then decided that instead of risking the delay and missing out on crossing, we should reach the top with support. After a beautiful initial ride, the riders were taken in the backup trucks to the top. We did complain about this a bit. But the risk of losing another day and missing out the rest of the ride was bigger. Some of us could have done it. But it was a decision taken in the interest of the larger group.
The campsite at Upshi was superb. There our faithful support staff was going to leave us and go back to Manali. New support was going to come in from here on. Apparently there is some boundary understanding between them. We made greeting cards and thank you notes for the incredible support staff and gave them in a small ceremony. They were so good and such beautiful people. Just thinking about them brings a warm smile to my face.
Day 12: August 10, 2016
Upshi – Thiksey Monastery – Shey Palace Ruins – Leh
We were on the Ladakh plateau, with the mighty Tanglangla Pass waving us goodbye. This was one of the most spectacular rides along the river. The Stakna Gompa stands tall in the middle of the landscape looking majestic. I was looking forward to seeing the Sindhu River. We spent a lot of time on the bridge that crossed Sindhu when we saw her first. Followed by a superb food hogging at the army canteen. Then ride up to Sindhu Darshan for lunch. It followed the ride up into Leh.
Day 13: August 11, 2016
Leh – Khardung La and Back
This day was the “summit” of the expedition. As usual we started at 5:30 am. I was on top by about 1:30 pm after taking a break at South Pullu by 9:30 am (for breakfast that is). The road was really bad after South Pullu. The three kilometre patch after this took a long time to negotiate. Leh to Khardung La is a stretch of 41 kilometres that climbs around 7000 feet in altitude. It was emotional for some people. I had never seen grown up men cry. Some of them did when they made it to the top. The view on either side was simply astonishing. Thankfully we were blessed with great weather. We all enjoyed the famous Thukpa there on top. The best moment was when my wife Vineeta, made it before the cut off (2:30 pm). I was running with her on the last bends. When Ashok snapped “No pushing”, I did not push.
Day 14: August 12, 2016
This was the last day of the expedition. Spare day when some people who did not make it to Khardung La on day one, were taken in a car to South Pullu and then they rode up to the top. I think this ride from Leh to Khardung La is a bit over glamourised. We did tougher rides on our way to Leh. I imagine this ride becomes psychologically pressurising to some people.
It always is toughest to say good byes, but this time we were saying it to Ladakh, only with a promise to return!