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Old 30th October 2017, 21:18   #1
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Default My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170728_191114.jpg

I admit that this is not a nice pic to begin a travelogue with. Specifically, the reader may ask what in the photo is relevant here - is it the train, the luggage cart, the people standing around or something in one of the boxes? But this photo somehow marked the culmination of a nearly one-year mental, physical and logistics preparation, and the start of a travel which even at the moment of taking the photo, I was not sure I could complete. Read on please.

It's not very often in life that you get something like a mid-life crisis, but most of us get hit by this phenomenon at least once in our lifetimes I suppose. For me, the latest one happened quite recently starting mid-2016 at the age of 47+ years, though calling 47 years my "mid-life" is stretching things a bit too far, especially after 30 years of smoking and a vice-full of lifestyle.

But to cut a long story short, I took up cycling again. I had always loved cycling, but the last time I had cycled was when I was in Grade 12, which was 30 years ago. But despite the long hiatus, I took to cycling like a fish to water.

First of course, came the question of purchasing a nice bicycle. Around July 2016, I started doing my research. After a lot of research, I decided to go for a mountain bike. I am not cut for speed, whether its on a 4-wheeler or a 2-wheeler, so I didn't go for a road bike. I briefly considered a hybrid bike, but then finally decided to go for a mountain bike.

Researching mountain bikes, I zeroed in on the minimum level of component system that I wanted to buy. That means the crankset, rear sprockets & cassette, gear shifts, brake levers & discs, front and rear derailleurs etc. There are two most popular companies in the world that make bicycle component systems - Shimano and SRAM (both Japanese). Out of these two, Shimano have better presence and customer support in India. So I decided to go with Shimano. Now Shimano has a whole range of systems (called groupsets), starting from beginners to the hardcore pro levels, with increasing prices. After reading many reviews, I decided to go for the Shimano Deore groupset, which seemed to have a good balance of performance, price and reliability in the world of mountain bikes.

Next came the decision of which bike manufacturer to go for. I started looking for bikes which sported the Shimano Deore system, zeroed in on three models - one from Scott, another from Giant and one from Fuji. Again, a whole lot of research was done on each manufacturer and these models. Scott Scale 770 came out to be the winner. Scott is a Swiss company and is one of the trusted ones among the hardcore mountain biking community. This particular model has the Shimano Deore system with a 10-speed rear cassette and 3-speed one in the front.

So, in August of 2016, I went down to the hub of cycle shops in Kolkata (Bentinck Street) and found a dealer who was willing to import the bike from an importer in Jalandhar, Punjab. The price quoted was INR 77,400 - final, no negotiations. Paid about half as advance amount. About 3 weeks later, the bike arrived.

What a beauty it was.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-scott-4.jpg

But what came was a bare-bones bike. It didn't even have a stand and pedals - I had to purchase these separately from the shop. The pedals were the cheapest available, and eventually I'd replace them before my trip of a lifetime (which this travelogue is all about). The stand however stood strong (no pun intended) all along though.

The necessary clothing, including padded biking shorts and the mandatory helmet were already purchased before the bike had arrived, so no time was wasted taking the beauty out for a ride the next morning, and everywhere I was going, people gawked at it, and everywhere I stopped, people asked the inevitable question "kitne ka hai" (how much it cost), and not wanting to appear like an idiot (couldn't admit to people on the streets that the bicycle costs more than a motorcycle), I threw out figures like 10k or 12K.

Along the way, I had to purchase a lot of accessories for the trip, some from India (Bumsonthesaddle is a useful online shop), some directly from the US Amazon website via a friend, some from Chain Reaction Cycles (online) from Ireland.

Some of the important stuff I had to purchase for the trip included the following:

A rear rack to carry the pannier bags, one on each side. This item probably took me the longest to research. Thats because not all racks fit all bikes. Scott Mountain bikes are especially notorious to not have proper support to mount racks. So after a lot of research, I finally found one which I figured could be fitted on my bike. It was on Amazon US website and they wouldn't ship this item to India, so I had to tell a friend to carry it for me when he was coming to India. Luckily it fitted my bike properly.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-rear-rack.jpg

A pair of rear pannier bags from Axiom. 45L capacity each. On hindsight, I should have spent more money on better quality and water-proof bags. These bags were not of too good quality and before my trip, I had to reinforce the back of the bags with extra material, as they were already tearing up from using them during my practice runs. To protect from rain, I had to get a special rain cover made for them. Good that I did as it rained on 6 of the 9 days I was out there.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-pannier-bags.jpg

A nice pair of pedals to replace the stock ones.

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A WOTOW 16-in-1 bicycle tool set. Very useful tool set. A must-carry.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-bike-tool-set.jpg

A spare foldable MTB tire from Schwalbe. I specifically wanted a foldable tire as hauling a full tire at the back of the bike was going to be awkward and cumbersome. This one came in a packet which I could just stuff inside one of the panniers.

However I did the entire trip in Aug-2017 with my original set of Maxxis tires which came with the bike. They had 3000+ kms on them already (about a years' worth of riding), but they had quite a bit of tread left on them, and I expected them to survive the trip. And they did. Wonderfully. Not even a single tire cut or a tube leak during the entire journey.

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A spare 10-speed 114-link chain from KMC. The specialty of KMC chains is that they have a special link in the chain which makes it easy to take off or put on the chain without any tools.

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Two Maxxis spare tubes. Just in case, though I thankfully didn't need them during the trip.

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Front and rear mud guards (appropriately named as Ass Savers).

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-front-mud-guard.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-rear-mud-guard.jpg

Two pairs of Nukeproof Shimano Deore semi-metallic brake pads for my front and rear disc brakes. I put them on just before the trip. It was a good idea to do so. You don't want to come barrelling down the mountain passes without proper braking control. Again, for people planning to go on these kind of extreme trips, it is recommended to use a cycle with disc brakes. They have a much better braking power and hence control, over regular brakes.

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A 150 lumen front light from Mako. This one was mounted on the handlebar, and even though I didn't do any night riding, this came in handy during the day as well, when I put them in blinking mode to warn incoming traffic while riding through rain and foggy conditions (which was the case on 6 out of 9 days). Most importantly, this light ran on AA batteries, not the chargeable lithium-ion kind, and the beam is quite powerful in the dark. I was also carrying an extra powerful torch in my bag.

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A 11000 mAh powerbank for my mobile, which served the purpose of GPS and music during the trip. I was also carrying a BSNL post-paid sim card, which was anyway useless for most of the days in the mountains.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-power-bank.jpg

Besides these, a lot of other knick-knacks and tools were purchased which I won't detail here. If someone is interested, I can share my complete check-list.

I had decided to travel light - just two rear panniers and 1 medium backpack was all I could carry. I knew that with my physical condition, it would anyway be difficult to cycle up the passes, so I decided to carry the bare essentials for the trip and keep the weight of the cycle as light as possible. I didn't carry any tent and stove with me. Only two pairs of sweat shirts and tracksuits for 9 days, plus an extra couple of t-shirts for freshening up in Leh and returning by bus to Manali (where I would be storing my suitcase in a hotel for these 9 days). Some dry food like energy bars, trail mixes, nuts and chocolates. A few packets of Electral and Iced Tea powder. A fleece jacket, raincoat, gloves, underwear, toothbrush, toilet paper, medical kit, chain cleaner and lube and a few other things were packed. Water bottles were purchased at the small settlements along the way.

But before I go into the actual trip, let me tell you a bit about the practice rides.

Kolkata has an elevation of 0 ft above MSL, so the only hilly terrain you can think of are the flyovers. Kolkata police frowns on cyclists on flyovers, so even that was pretty much ruled out. I was not getting any hill practice runs. Amidst my busy work schedule, I didn't get time to go to North Bengal to practice there in the mountains, because going there and back would take at least 5+ days. So I compromised and went on a couple of 2-days trips to places which were 5 hours drive away, and had a semblance of hilly terrain around. Two such places were Bhangriposi (in Orissa) and Garpanchkot (in Bengal). I used to load my cycle in the back of my Scorpio, drive there, check into a hotel, then get my bike out and cycle. Used to practice about 90-100 kms each day on these short trips.

Bhangriposi is a fantastic village on NH-60 (Kolkata-Bombay Road). Its on the edge of Simplipal forest, and cycling was great fun there. In fact I went to this place twice, including once in April 2017 where, when I went out to cycle at a little past 12 noon, the hotel staff thought I was a mental case, as the temperature outside was above 42 deg C. Lucky that I didn't get a sun-stroke.

Here are a few pics of my practice cycling in Bhangriposi, Orissa and a bit inside Simlipal National Forest Reserve.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-bhangriposi-01.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-bhangriposi-02.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-simlipal-forest.jpg

Also went to a place called Garpanchkot in West Bengal, a small pristine village with crumbling temples and a ruin of a fort, and a few hills. While attempting to ride up a steep (and I mean really steep) hill on a totally rocky road (that was actually meant for hiking), broke the chain, then got my first hands-on experience of how to fix a broken chain by using a chain tool, removing the broken link, then joining back the good parts of the chain.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-garpanchkot-01.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-garpanchkot-02.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-cycling-garpanchkot-03.jpg

Living in a crowded city like Kolkata doesn't give you a lot of roads for biking, however I found some nearby villages which were within a 30-minute ride from home, and rode my bike there early mornings during the weekends. My goal was to do 60-70 kms on each day of these local weekend biking. During these local rides, the plan to bike on the Manali-Leh highway slowly started taking shape. I knew that a number of people had done that, including our own ADC (almost 5 years ago). So I read ADC's travelogue thoroughly, over and over, made notes, planned my schedule, and then called him up and talked to him in detail. Luckily, he lives quite near to where I stay, so I convinced him to go out biking with me in the weekends once in a while, and picked his brains for more details.

During the last 4 months before the trip, I fitted the rack and pannier bags on the cycle, then put about 7-8 kg of sand in each pannier, to simulate cycling with loaded panniers. It does make a considerable difference in handling, balancing and braking. Glad I practiced that way, so during my actual trip, when the panniers were loaded with about 15 kg of stuff, I was quite ready with how the bike would handle.

Other than these practice runs, I went to the gym regularly, did quite a bit of weight training, and a lot of cardio. Swimming once a week in my apartment complex's 25 meter pool. 21 laps, then a 5-minute break, then another 21 laps. Why 21? It was psychological - will explain later. :-)

Worse thing though was, I still couldn't quit my smoking, though I knew it would come to bite me in the rear when I would be struggling for breath at 16000+ ft.

My initial plan was to do the trip starting the beginning of Sep 2017 and be back by mid-Sep, just in time for the early Durga Pujas this year. But then I found out that both of my kids had mid-term exams in Sep, and my wife would give me a hard time if I went cycling during the exams, so I advanced the trip by 1 month to start by end-July and be back by mid-Aug. Of course, I was aware that there was a good chance of rains during that time (and boy, was I right !!!) which inreased the risk of landslides (thankfully, didn't encounter one), but I had to take the chance as otherwise my trip would get postponed to 2018. I didn't want to do the trip in October, as it would get quite cold my then, which meant taking heavy jackets adding to the load, and more importantly, many of the road-side life-saver shacks would be closed down by then. So August it had to be.

Accordingly I made my trip itenerary, planning to start from Kolkata by train on 28th July (Friday), and be back by 14th August. Booked my Kolkata-Chandigarh 2AC tickets on Kalka Mail.

The following was my initial and modified-on-the-fly itinerary. It got modified as I went along the trip and eventually I was able to increase my pace and reached Leh 2 days before the original schedule.

Initial Itinerary:

28-July: Start from Kolkata by Kalka Mail @ 7:40 PM.
29-July: On train.
30-July: Reach Chandigarh 04:00 AM. Take taxi from Chandigarh to Palchan (10 kms from Manali on the M-L Hwy) and reach Palchan by afternoon. Check into hotel. Unpack and assemble bicycle.
31-July: Palchan - Gulaba - Rahalla - Marhi. 25 kms.
1-Aug: Marhi - Rani Nullah - Rohtang La - Gramphoo - Koksar - Sissu. 51 kms.
2-Aug: Sissu - Gondhla - Tandi - Keylong. 31 kms.
3-Aug: Keylong [10,000 ft] - Gemur - Jispa [10,800 ft] - Darcha [11,020 ft]. 33 kms.
4-Aug: Darcha [11,020 ft] - Patseo [12,500 ft] - Upper ZingZing Bar [14,050 ft]. 27 kms.
5-Aug: Upper ZingZing Bar [14,050 ft] - Suraj Tal - Baralacha la [16,500 ft] - Bharatpur - Sarchu [14,000 ft]. 50 kms.
6-Aug: Sarchu†[14,300 ft] - Gata loops [13,700-15,300 ft] - Nakee la [15,700 ft] -†Whisky Nullah†[15,000 ft]. 50 kms.
7-Aug: Whisky Nullah - Lachulung la [16,800 ft] - Pang [15,300 ft]. 30 kms.
8-Aug: Pang - Morey Plains - Debring [15,800 ft]. 55 kms.
9-Aug: Debring - Tanglang La [17,600 ft] - Rumtse [14,100 ft]. 47 kms.
10-Aug: Rumtse [14,100 ft] - Upshi - Karu - Leh [11,560 ft]. 78 kms.
11-Aug: Rest all day. Take Tempo Traveller back to Manali in evening.
12-Aug: Reach Manali in late morning.
13-Aug: Take taxi from Manali to Chandigarh. Reach by afternoon.
14-Aug: Board Kalka Mail 01:10 AM.
15-Aug: Reach Kolkata in the morning.

Modified Itinerary:
(what actually happened)

28-July: Start from Kolkata by Kalka Mail @ 7:40 PM.
29-July: On train.
30-July: Reach Chandigarh 04:00 AM. Take taxi to Palchan (10 kms from Manali) and reach Palchan by afternoon. Check into hotel. Unpack and assemble bicycle.
31-July: Palchan - Marhi. 25 kms.
1-Aug: Marhi - Rani Nullah - Rohtang La - Gramphoo - Koksar - Sissu. 51 kms.
2-Aug: Sissu - Gondhla - Tandi - Keylong - Gemur - Jispa - Darcha. 64 kms. ==> Saved a day here.
3-Aug: Darcha - Patseo - Upper Zingzingbar. 27 kms.
4-Aug: Upper Zingzingbar - Baralacha La - Bharatpur - Sarchu. 50 kms.
5-Aug: Sarchu - Gata Loops - Nakee La - Whisky Nullah. 50 kms.
6-Aug: Whisky Nullah - Lachulung La - Pang - Morey Plains - Debring. 85 kms. ==> Saved a day here.
7-Aug: Debring - Tanglang La - Rumste - Upshi. 75 kms. ==> Went further than planned in order to have a easy day tomorrow.
8-Aug: Upshi - Leh. 48 kms. Reached by early afternoon. Rest and toast to self.
9-Aug: Sleep and good food all day. Boarded evening 5:30 PM Tempo Traveller to Manali.
10-Aug: Reached Manali by 9:00 AM. Packed bicycle. Slept and ate all day in Manali.
11-Aug: Manali - Chandigarh. I reached 2 days before my scheduled return train. Was able to cancel old ticket and get confirmed ticket for 13-Aug 01:10 AM. There was waiting list for the 12-Aug train, so didn't go for that. This was still 1 day earlier, so I still had 1 whole day to spend in Chandigarh. Just slept.
12-Aug: Slept in Chandigarh all day.
13-Aug: Boarded 01:10 AM Kalka Mail.
14-Aug: Reached Kolkata.


The first photo in this travelogue is thus from 28-July evening while my bicycle, packed in the long cardboard box was waiting for Kalka Mail to pull in and be loaded into the Parcel van. As I said, it was the culmination of nearly a year of planning and practicing and getting myelf physically, and more importantly - emotionally ready (I had to belive in myself that I could do it), and the beginning of the journey of a lifetime for me.

The packing of the bicycle into the box took me almost half a day. I had to take off the handle, front wheel, the rear rack and the seat. All important parts were individually wrapped with bubble wrap before putting into the box. There was heavy padding of foam and bubble wrap inside. The bubble wrap padding which you see outside the box served as extra padding for the rear derailleur. If that got damaged during the train ride, my trip would be over before it even started.

Luckily, the packing was great and the bicycle arrived safely in Manali. It was not so good on the return trip though.

It may be worth mentioning here that after the bicycle was fully packed, I started getting cold feet and began to question myself whether the risk of going solo on this long and arduous journey was even worth taking. I had to convince myself hard that this was what I had been preparing for. I had whipped myself into shape, gave up sweets (very tough for a Bengali !!!), couldn't give up smoking (even tougher for a Bengali !!!) and had trimmed down my weight by 6 kilos. Luckily, this self-doubting phase passed over soon.

Booking into the Parcel Van at Howrah station was really a breeze. I arrived at Howrah 4 hours before departure time, got hold of a parcel booking agent (whom I had talked to earlier during a recce a few days before the trip), and the booking just took 20 minutes. All I needed was a ID xerox and a copy of the ticket. Booking cost was approx Rs.700, and I paid the agent another Rs.300 for his labor and to ensure that nothing got loaded on top of this box inside the parcel van.

Here is a busy Howrah station on the evening of 28-July.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170728_183122.jpg

The train arrived on time, my box was loaded, and I ran to my 2AC coach which was all the way towards the other end.

Reached Mughal Sarai early next morning.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170729_070414.jpg

Finally reached Chandigarh at 4 AM on 30-July. My unloaded carton in the background, waiting to get it released from the luggage inspector. Normally, anything unloaded from the parcel van is carried to the station's parcel office, and from there, the goods are released. Since I didn't want to wait too long, I requested the inspector to release my package from the platform itself, and he thankfully obliged after checking the booking slip.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_034333.jpg

Unfortunately there were no Manali registered taxis (which would have been cheaper by half) available at the station or nearby. So I was forced to rent a Chandigarh Innova with a negotiated rate of Rs.6000 + toll + green tax. The other low-priced option for Rs.4000 was a Dzire, but the bicycle box wouldn't fit inside.

Short breakfast break at Chandigarh.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_055216.jpg

About half-way to Manali, I saw one of the most incredible things. I had heard about this from Kolkata and coincidentally met up with this fellow on the rickshaw. Stopped my car immediately and got down to chat with him. The signboard at the front of the rickshaw says it all. He was riding from Kolkata to Turtuk. And this was not his first trip. Possibly his third or fourth trip from Kolkata to Ladakh - all on rickshaw, including Khardungla Top.

Nine days later, when I was returning by Tempo from Leh to Manali, I saw him again when he was laboriously making his way up Rohtang La. Almost a month later, beginning of September, he called me and said he had completed his trip.

Hats off to this guy. He gets some small sponsorships from Kolkata for these trips and operates on a shoestring budget. Seeing him there, I got renewed vigor and confidence that I could make it to Leh on my cycle.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_085519.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_085736.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_085905.jpg

Passing through the town of Kulu.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_131912.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_131926.jpg

Reached Manali, crossed town and went up a bit further towards Palchan. Saw this small hotel by the roadside, checked it was OK and quite cheap (like Rs.500), and got a room here. This was where I would keep my suitcase and the cardboard box for 10 days, assemble the cycle, load the panniers and backpack, and start on the journey the next morning.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170730_152020.jpg

It was raining and heavily cloudy and gloomy weather. I was hoping the rain would stop the next day.
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Old 31st October 2017, 04:59   #2
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This is exciting stuff. Do continue, Mr.Sinha. Going up Khardungla pass on a cycle by a person 47 years old. This is going to be interesting.
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Old 6th November 2017, 22:32   #3
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D-DAY arrives.

Day 1. 31-July-2017: Palchan - Gulaba - Rahalla - Marhi. 25 kms.


Distance-wise, it was going to be a short day. Not that I had a choice. Next stop after Marhi would have been after Rohtang, and no way I could cross Rohtang on the first day itself.

Effort-wise it was going to be the longest 25 kms of my life. As it turned out, riding the first few kms itself turned out to be back-breaking and superbly exhausting for me.

Got up in the morning fresh from a good night's sleep and immediately noticed to my dismay that it was still drizzling.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_090953.jpg

Since I could do nothing about it, proceeded as per plan. The panniers were already loaded, so after a light breakfast, fixed them on the bike along with the rain cover. I had made a crude cover with plastic and staples for my backpack too, so put that on as well. Finally, putting on my raincoat, with a silent "Joy Ma Kali", I was all ready to start the journey.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_084955.jpg

The problem with the road from Palchan to Marhi is that its all uphill, all the way. There is absolutely no downhill section here. So the first day on this route is always one of the most difficult and tiring days, especially if you are not used to high-altitude biking. I wasn't. Coming from the plains of Bengal, my lungs were bursting after 10 minutes of riding. The heart wanted to leap out of the mouth. The rains kept the temperature down, but I was sweating like a pig. The raincoat was making things worse. I desperately wanted to give up and turn back. How easy it would have been !!!

Some pics along the way.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_091003.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_092140.jpg

If I wasn't struggling hard on my bicycle, I would have really loved the weather and nature and the waterfalls caused by the rains along the way.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_092844.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_093004.jpg
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My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_100131.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_103132.jpg


Finally reached Gulaba after what seemed like a long time. On the way, met a few bikers who encouraged me with big thumbs-ups. This is one thing which I consistently found all the way to Leh. Most bikers acknowledged me with raising their thumbs.

On a cycle, didn't need to stop at Gulaba checkpost. They just waved me through. That happened at other checkposts as well. They don't bother with cyclists permits, though at the Sarchu checkpost later, they wrote down my name and contact info, which they said was to keep track in case I went missing later.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_112258.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_112305.jpg

By this time, all my clothes were completely soaked from sweat, top and bottom. As I said, the raincoat made things worse by not allowing evaporation. Either way, with or without the raincoat, I would have got soaked, so there was no point crying. Just continued cycling, with photo breaks becoming my catching-my-breath breaks.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_113515.jpg
My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_115920.jpg

Finally after another couple of hours to cover 13 kms, entered Marhi. The fog was bad, and it was still raining.

My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway-img_20170731_163012.jpg

This was going to be my stop for the day. Enough of back-breaking work done for a day. I was exhausted, yet very happy. What a first day it turned out to be. From nearly quitting to completing the target for the day gave me renewed energy. Tomorrow would be a major day where I have to tackle Rohtang La, and if I could go over that, that would be a tremendous boost for me.

Stopped at the Whispering dhaba where I enquired for a room for the night.

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Got a basic single room for 500 bucks, dug into some maggi and omelet for dinner, then called it a night. The weather was so humid, that I hung up my sweat soaked clothes to dry, but when I woke up in the morning, they were as wet as before. So I just had one dry pair left now. The rain continued to fall.
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Old 6th November 2017, 23:08   #4
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DAY 2. 1-AUG-2017: Marhi - Rani Nullah - Rohtang La - Gramphoo - Koksar - Sissu. 51 kms.

Today was going to be the first major test of the trip. The first of the 5 mountain passes along the highway. Rohtang is at 13,000+ ft (which meant a vertical climb of roughly 2000 ft from Marhi) and the weather is crummy most of the times. Today it was a particularly bad weather day. The day, being a Tuesday, the route to the top from Manali side was closed for all tourist vehicles, including rented motorbikes. This closure happens once a week. If however you were coming from Leh side, you could pass through to Manali.

My first pair of clothes that I had hung out to dry did not dry even a bit. So I packed them in a plastic bag, wore my remaining pair, and got some breakfast. The rain had stopped, but it was extremely overcast and foggy. After packing up and loading my cycle, I started on the journey around 7 am. The distance to the top was about 17 kms from Marhi, and I figured that if things went ok and there were no mishaps on the way, it would probably take me about 4 hours to reach the top. I was ok time-wise. My stop for tonight would be Sissu which I should comfortably reach.

I popped a Disprin before I started.

Now this was one tablet I religiously took every morning of the journey. Unlike my previous driving trips, I didn't take any Diamox tablets this time, as I figured that since I was gaining altitude slowly, my body would become conditioned and acclimatized anyway (although later I realized I was slightly wrong there). But I was probably more worried about my rapid heart-beats which was peaking very often, which was not necessarily a good thing for my age. Therefore I thought the Disprin would help in maintaining blood circulation and preventing any possible clots, besides also soothing any aching muscles.

At the start of the journey, the weather and road to Rohtang looked grim.

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Climbing up from Marhi.

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Selfie time. I was not carrying any stand. I was carrying a small camera, but I rarely took it out as it was raining on most of the days. So most of the photos were clicked on my cell phone which was kept in my pocket wrapped in plastic.

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Along the way.

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11 kms to the top after 2 hours. It was slow going.

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Frequent catching-my-breath photo breaks on the climb.

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Thankfully, due to no tourist traffic, road was empty except for the BRO crew.

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Approaching Rani Nullah.

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I remember even 3 years ago when I was doing this route in my Scorpio, the road around Rani Nullah was a complete mess of mud and water. But now, its all spic and span, thanks to BRO. The nullah has been tamed.

Ice from last winter still remains and the nullah carves out a cave.

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Tamed Rani Nullah.

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One mechanical mule among many real ones.

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6 more kms to go after nearly 3.5 hrs of riding. I was behind schedule.

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The last few kms were extremely foggy. FINALLY, reached the top 5 hrs after starting from Marhi.

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Photo was clicked by a couple who had come to visit Rohtang from Manali on a motorcycle. Not sure how they got through the Gulaba checkpost.

All along the past 17 kms, I was thinking about that hot cup of tea and maggi which I planned to eat at the shack on Rohtang top, but when I reached there, everything was closed down. Thats when I came to know from some of the BRO workers about this Tuesday no-tourist rule.

Although I was disappointed not to get the tea, I was overly elated too at making the first of the 5 passes. This definitely gave me a strong confidence boost. I knew much harder stuff was yet to come, but hey, 13000 ft is conquered now.

After a celebratory smoke break and some chocolates and water, I started on the downhill journey. It was going to be 95% downhill from here all the way to Sissu.

Now look at the weather on the other side of Rohtang. Unbelievable !!!

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Tarred roads downhill and I was enjoying the ride.

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Since it was sunny and windy too, I took out my wet clothes and clipped them on the front and back of the cycle in an attempt to dry them. It worked. By the time I reached Khoksar, they were 80% dry.

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Unfortunately the tar ended soon. Roads then went from bad to worse. Speed downhill dropped down drastically. Maintaining balance and slowly navigating through the rocks in order to avoid tire cuts became paramount. And then there were the extremely muddy areas where some road work was going on.

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A family playing near a beautiful waterfall.

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Bad roads continued.

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Finally a few kms before Khoksar, tar re-appeared.

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Scotty enjoying nature.

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Old 6th November 2017, 23:24   #5
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Finally, stopped at Khoksar for a late lunch of egg-maggi.

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Sissu was roughly 15-20 kms from here. After a brief rest, resumed my ride. I had plenty of time to get there before dark. Road was mostly neutral to downhill with some slight uphill sections, but after crossing Rohtang, this was a piece of cake.

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River Beas flows along.

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Rohtang tunnel build in full flow.

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Only another 394 kms to go !!!

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The day's drama had not ended for me. I was ridding along peacefully, when I suddenly encounter this. As it turned out, this was going to be the first of many more water crossings along the MLH. Many were ankle-deep water. Some were knee-deep water. I didn't want to wet my only pair of boots.

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Luckily I was prepared for such eventualities. :-) But the water was ice-cold.

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Some mini-glaciers along the way to Sissu.

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Entering the village of Sissu.

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Checked at the Circuit House, but the entire accommodation was already booked by a Army unit for a few days, so looked for a home stay.
Found one called Tashi Home-stay with decent room-rate of Rs. 600. No, its not the broken down building on the road, but further inside.

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Room was very decent.

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Cleaned up the chain of my cycle and lubed it. After a lovely home-cooked meal of saag-paneer, omelet and 2 chapatis, called it a night.

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My hosts were so hospitable, and we talked for a long time, and they asked me why I was doing this trip, that too all alone, and honestly I didn't have a good answer for them. I told them I just felt like doing it, and wanted to see how far I could go.

As I settled down to sleep, couldn't help but think of all the preparations for the past year leading to this evening, and all the events of the journey till now starting from the evening at Howrah station. Last night I was miserably wet and exhausted and the room was worse than a dirty and wet shack. Tonight I had a nice dry and clean room to sleep (last such "luxurious" sleeping accommodation before Leh) and even after crossing Rohtang, I was not feeling too tired. I had completed the 2nd day, and there was no turning back now.
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Old 7th November 2017, 00:00   #6
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DAY 3. 2-AUG-2017: Sissu - Gondhla - Tandi - Keylong - Gemur - Jispa - Darcha. 64 kms.


Woke up after a refreshing sleep in the morning, but I was feeling very tired. There was no tiredness last evening, but for some reason, I felt like sleeping more. Almost forced myself out of bed so I could start cycling by 7 am. Again, this is a start time which I maintained every day of the journey.

Body was feeling lethargic, but after a strong cup of tea, started feeling slightly better.

From Sissu, its a nagging uphill all the way to Gondhla, then a fantastic tar road downhill through hairpin bends up to Keylong. After that comes a steep climb to Jispa before a moderate uphill to Darcha.

As per my initial plan, I had thought of stopping at Keylong for the day, which was about 31 kms from Sissu, reach by mid-day, find a hotel and sleep for the rest of the day. But even though I began the ride in a lethargic mode, by the time I reached Keylong, I was feeling just fine, and so decided on-the-fly to continue to Darcha which was another 33 kms from Keylong. By doing this, I saved 1 day from my initial schedule. In any case, I figured that I was in no hurry, I was doing this at my own pace. If I felt tired, I'd have rested.

Lovely vistas and a liberal smattering of greenery along the way from Sissu.

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A lonely mini-glacier.

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After a couple of hours of cycling, stopped for breakfast.

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And continued. The rain was on hold, but unfortunately not for long.

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Reached Tandi. Anyone who has travelled on the MLH would be familiar with this sign.

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The rains finally started after crossing Tandi bridge. Sometimes a heavy downpour, sometimes a drizzle, but it fell continuously.

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Entering Keylong.

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This last photo is where we had stopped 3 years ago for breakfast. I just remembered how fast we had reached here from Manali, probably in less than 4 hours. But this time, I was on my 3rd day.

Felt like a movie in slow motion. While cycling, one tends to notice and appreciate a lot more things, - nature, the vista, the people around, the villages, small schools, children, shops, - things which would have zipped through while in a motor vehicle. Photography while traveling by car feels almost like a forced stop to take photos. On a cycle, it felt more dynamic.

Stopped for lunch here. By this time, I had already decide to continue to Darcha.

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A muddy stretch after Keylong. As I was cycling along, there came a car from behind with three persons, all local, who honked and stopped me. After exchanging pleasantries and knowing that I was going to Leh, they sincerely advised me to go back to Manali, as it was still raining ahead and water crossings on the road may be too deep for me to take the cycle through. After they left, it got me thinking a bit. But then I decided to continue anyway and see till what point I could go before I was forced to turn back. I prayed for one good day of sunshine which would help drain the rain water from the hills by the road-side and make the water crossings shallow. My prayer would eventually be answered tomorrow.

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Finally it stopped raining. I was pretty miserable cycling in a raincoat.

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The steep climb to Jispa starts shortly. By this time, panting, pedaling and stopping to return my heart-beat to normal, then starting the process all over again - all of this had become second nature to me. Like a robot, I just repeated the sequence.

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Pretty soon, the tar disappeared and the road turned rough. The plastic wrapped around the light on the handlebar allowed to keep it dry and operational in blinking mode when it was raining.

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Reached Gemur.

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Tourist camps along the river bank at Gemur.

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Finally reached Jispa.

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Old 7th November 2017, 00:10   #7
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A beautiful hotel in Jispa.

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Passed Jispa and took a longer break sitting by the side of the river and munching on nuts, and appreciating nature, and thinking random thoughts, sometimes getting philosophical.

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Finally reached Darcha by 5 pm. No stopping for cyclists at the checkpost. Decided to cross the river and look for a place to stay on the other side.

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Selected this small shack - Himalayan Food Corner. They had sleeping accommodation inside, just for Rs. 100. Damn cheap. Food extra of course.

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New bridge being constructed.

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Surprisingly, I had one of the best dinners of the trip here. When I asked what food was available, already resigned to eating maggi and omelet, the hostess said they had mutton curry. I had to make her repeat twice to make sure I heard it right. And boy, was the mutton curry good. It was cooked almost like bengali goat curry style, and I took a double helping and polished it off with a load of white rice. Full to the brim and gastronomically satisfied, I went to bed.

<END OF DAY 3>
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Old 8th November 2017, 08:29   #8
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Default Re: My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway

Thread moved from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section) to the Travelogues Section. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 8th November 2017, 09:00   #9
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Bravo my dear sir.

Like you correctly pointed on, in a car or a bike we just fly past the scenery.

Only a walk or cycling makes us really take in and appreciate nature.

Keep going please.
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Old 8th November 2017, 11:11   #10
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This is great !!!

I have been thinking of making it to Leh on a two wheeler (motorized though) and am not able to muster courage so far. Riding a cycle, no matter how technically advanced ATB it may be needs something "above and beyond".

God bless you !

May you get a chance to explore Sikkim soon !

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Old 8th November 2017, 11:18   #11
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True courage and Passion at display!
Hats off sir, beautiful indeed
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Old 8th November 2017, 11:28   #12
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Oh man, doing that road on a motorbike was tiring enough, I wonder how you guys cycle that one?! Serious respect for you guys!
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Old 8th November 2017, 13:30   #13
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Lost for words reading your travelogue, Sinha ji. Amazing willpower for anyone to even try this, let alone execute it. Waiting for your next part.
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Old 8th November 2017, 14:41   #14
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Hats off to your dedication and determination Mr. Sinha, this trip is truly inspirational
It was a brave decision to venture out during rains but again you had your own reasons.

5 stars and subscribed to this thread. Eagerly awaiting for the remaining parts.
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Old 8th November 2017, 14:44   #15
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Default Re: My 9 days of cycling on the Manali-Leh Highway

Keep it coming Mr Sinha. This is truly encouraging in every sense. A big thumbs up to you. Also loved your narration and language.

I have a noob question: What differentiates a mountain bike from a hybrid bike?

I am sure that mutton curry rice that you had for your dinner would have pepped you even more for the remaining days
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