"A bad day on the mountain bike always beats a good day in the office." - Mike Brcic
It was almost a year after our last Himalayan sojourn and it was time to head to the mountains again. Sandeep and I had always wanted to cycle the majestic Manali-Leh highway.The challenging climbs, high altitude passes, the ever present risk of weather going bad, rough roads and many such difficulties make this journey even more appealing. We were contemplating of doing this as a self supported ride, however gave up on that idea and decided to do a have a support vehicle along with us. Along with Sandeep and I, there were five other riders who decided to join us. ( Avinesh, Brijesh, Sachin, John and Mrugank -- all of us from Bengaluru). We were an eclectic bunch of riders with some of us a little more experienced with long distance cycling than others, however, we knew that if we wanted to really enjoy the Manali-Leh journey, than we would have to have some practice behind us. We did a few ( couple ) of group rides to Nandi Hills and some more rides of around 70-100 k together.
Well, we were to realize later that no amount of practice can really prepare of you for the trials and tribulations, but then this ride of about 500 KM is no picnic trail either.
We sent our cycles to Manali via road transport and the seven of us reached Manali via Chandigarh. We spent a day in Manali to make the preparations for the ride. We shopped for rations, fuel, utensils etc. We also unpacked the cylces, assembled them and fixed minor issues, all a day before we had to ride. We were all set. This was the second week of June and the weather was looking great.
Manali to Marhi (39 km)
What a first day it turned out to be. We started at 9:30 AM. It was warm, but the weather was good and the sky was clear. We knew it was all the way a climb till Marhi. The initial climb after Manali was gradual but I was enjoying being on the saddle. One of our friends, Kieran was training in Manali for his Ultra Marathons and he was planning to run with us till Marhi while we cylced up. He was staying put in some village outside Manali and I met him after about 6km from the Mall. He started his run alongside us and I must say on some steeper climbs he was faster than us. We crossed Kothi soon and then Palchan. Everyone was feeling the pains of the climb and this was the first day. The next pit stop was Gulaba. The ride was fantastic till this point, however I found it a little tough after Gulaba. Finally I reached Marhi around 1:15 PM and waited for support vehicle to come which in about an hour. We pitched the tents a little above the road and waited while rest of the gang followed.
It started raining in the evening and the steady drizzle suddenly turned into a massive downpour. We couldn't do anything but wait it out in the tents. Sachin's bike was giving him a bit of trouble while shifting gears We tried to see if we could get help somewere and checked with a Hungarian biker who was carrying quite a few bike parts to see if anything could be done. But we couldn't fix it and Sachin decided to take it easy and ride the bike where ever it was possible for him. It was still raining when we called it a day around 9:30 PM.
Marhi to Sisu (51 km)
It continued to rain thewhole night but when I woke up, the skies were clear. We had to start with another climb, this time to the Rohtang pass. When we started at around 8:30 AM, the weather again turned bad. The visibilty dropped and it was threatening to rain.
So we decided, we will try and ride together till the top. Predictably just 5km from Marhi, it started raining heavily. There is no place to take shelter on this road and so we didn't have any option but to continue riding. As we climbed up, it started to get very cold. My hands were becoming numb due to the cold as I got completely drenched. I decided to move ahead so that I could reach the support vehicle to get my rain gear out. The climb from Marhi is about 17 km and was easy as compared to yesterday but the rain and cold made it very difficult. Kieran the ultra man was planning to run till Rohtang and then run back to Manali. He and I reached the top of Rohtang pass (13110 ft) together. I was in a bad condition due to the cold and the support vehicle was no where in site. Kieran took my bike to look for the support vehicle and came back with it in a while. I changed my clothes and got my rain gear as well.
In the mean time all the other folks arrived and they were all in the same condition, drenched to the bone and cold. We had hot tea here and then bid good bye to Kieran and started ahead and lo behold when reached zero point ( top of the pass ), there was a traffic jam and it was worse than what we see in Marthahalli or at Kundalhaali gate. We managed to negotiate the traffic and started our descent down towards the Lahaul side.
It was still raining and we hoped against hope that it would be dry on the other side. However, we were disappointed. It continued to rainand the condition of the road became more pathetic. After a while as we were about to finish the descent, I realized that my brakes were not working at all. I had to get down and push the bike in some of those scary sections. Sandeep was further down and there was no sign of him. I tried to push my bike for couple of kms and while I was doing that, a kind soul in one of those small trucks helped me. I put the bike in his carrier and went down till Khoksar with him. I thanked the savior and waited for Sandeep and John at Khoksar at a dhaba. I had seen them while coming down in the truck. The rain had not stopped yet. They arrived in a while and immediately ordered for some hot noodles. After a while the others also arrived. Everyone was wet, cold and hungry and in an irritable mood, but then a Punjabi group was playing songs and doing the bhangra to beat the cold and soon others including us at the dhaba joined them.
We took a longish break here and started as soon as the rain stopped. The route from Khoksar to Sisu was very secnic ride and it took away all our irritability.
We reached Sisu at around 4 PM, but not without some additional drama. Brijesh missed the campsite and some folks had to go look for him in the vehicle. The place where we had camped was beautiful indeed and the group again broke into an impromptu bhangra. Sandeep had a look at my brakes and fixed them and I was all set for the next day.
Sisu to Jispa (55 km)
It was a beautiful morning and we were all ready to roll again as we started at around 8PM. It was all the way rolling till we reached Tandi, the last place where the vehicle could fuel up.
We were riding along the Chandra river till the Tandi Bridge which is on the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga river. After the Tandi bridge, we were riding alone the Bhaga river to reach Keylong which is around 7km up from Tandi but the climb was not difficult as the road conditions were good. We reached Keylong at around 11:30 AM. We called up our respective homes (cell phone signal available here), had an early lunch and started towards Jispa Jispa is around 20km from here and the roads were in a much better condition.
A little downhill from Keylong and then a small climb and finally rolling all the way till Jispa..
We had to pay for pitching our tents here ( around 150Rs each). It was windy but the sun was out and some folks decided to go to a nearby stream to cleanup. Spent the afternoon and evening relaxing in this quaint village.
Jispa to Upper Zingzing Bar ( 37 km )
The weather was not looking good when we got up and we didn't want another rainy ride. The ride till Darcha was all rolling and road is in good conditions. There is a checkpost at Darcha and we had to provide our identifications here. The climb from Darch to Patsio is a gradual with the initial 10-11 kms on broken road.
The road was impossible to negotiate at some places what with it being totally flooded. Even the guys on Bullets had a lot of trouble crossing these sections.
Patsio is around 25km from Jispa and it is only a few temporary dhabas that come up in the season.There is a lake here called Deepak Tal where we had nice hot tea at the dhaba. We were expecting to reach Zingzing bar soon, but realized that the next 12 to 15 km is all climbing. The road from Patsio to Zingzing bar was in a good condition and initially it was a rolling terrain.
We had cross another of those water logged roads (reminded me of some roads in Bangalore after a spell of rain) before reaching Z-Bar. As we reached Z-Bar, we realized that this was only the Lower Zingzing Bar and the actual campsite was still a little ahead. We had to actually do another climb of around 7 km before we reached the Upper Zingzing bar.
It was very windy but I guess what saved us was that it was mostly a tail wind. The campsite is at a decent altitude of around 4400 mts and I could feel the thin air here. Also there is a lot of wind from this point onwards. The scenery was stark with treeless mountains with patches of snow.
Manali Leh Cycling Part 2 is here