On Top of the World on a handbike
At the top of the Taglang La, the highest of the five mountain passes at 5328 metres (17480 ft) a road sign, surrounded by colourful prayer flags, exclaims “Unbelievable! Is it not”. The fact that a road has been carved from India through this harsh high desert region of the Himalayas to the previously isolated state of Ladakh (or “Little Tibet”) is certainly amazing. Here are the world’s highest motorable roads with all of the culture, scenery and challenge that you could wish for in a biking journey. But don’t be intimidated…we (four girls) did the journey on a handcycle tandem recumbent, one MTB with a trailer to tow my wheelchair, and Helen (Wobbly) bought her first bike only a month before the trip…it’s a journey with something for everyone, as long as you’re looking for moon-like mountain scenery, solid thigh muscles and sheer-drop induced adrenaline.
Ladakh lies in the parched rainshadow north of the Himalayan watershed, in a land of wind, high desert and remorseless sun. Ladakhis were isolated by the mountains and lived a self-contained existence for centuries until the impressive roads that cling and carve precariously through the trans-Himalayan ranges, connected it to the rest of India in 1989.
Around Leh, the earth is bare and every step you take stirs a cloud of dusty sand. The sun burns in a cloudless sky, onto rusty slopes of scree, plummeting into stark lunar valleys below, and rising to a panorama of scorched summits, iced with glaciers.
Our spectacular arrival by flight into Leh was quickly followed by us scratching our heads at how to fix the broken hydraulic brake cable the tandem had acquired in-flight, given that the spares had accidentally been left behind. Our mission to fix it (no way did we want to cycle the worlds highest roads with one brake!) led to a tour of Leh’s back streets and markets in search of bike, moped, motorbike and even sewing machine mechanics! “Juma” was our saviour – a motorbike mechanic, a whiz with hydraulic brakes and despite the unusual nature of the job he produced a bomb-proof result. Four days, and many altitude-induced headaches later, we finally felt fit and ready to begin cycling.
The old enemies of cyclists – wind and dust – are in no short supply in this region. The wind tore open our shirts, and the dust gave us eyes that felt like fine sandpaper, but we found them somehow bearable given the wild beauty of the landscape, and the warm smiles of the Ladakhi people. We were a colourful circus of bikes as we paraded through the villages along route, decorated in Tibetan prayer flags to make us more visible and hopefully bring us good luck. “Juley!” children and adults shouted to us from the fields and dusty villages. Juley is the universal Ladakhi word for “hello”, “thank you”, “please”, “excuse me”…it’s a great word for linguistically-challenged tourists, always said with a sing-song tone and accompanied by a broad smile. Despite the harsh environment and climate, the people radiate happiness and we felt safe and welcome. Maybe the contented nature of the Ladakhis stems from the Tibetan Buddhist culture, and people who have over centuries learnt to be self-reliant and to grow communities at harmony with the land, with nature and with each other.
From Leh, the road follows the Indus River on its journey southwards, where we left it to begin climbing. Seventy kilometres of relentless uphill, from around 3500 to 5400 metres and the high point of our journey, the Tanglang-La. We were slightly nervous about living and exercising at altitude. I had a previous experience of severe AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness – which involved an emergency plane-lift out of mountains, and didn’t want it repeated. We followed the medical recommendation of not sleeping more than three hundred metres higher than the previous night, to give our bodies time to adapt to oxygen-starvation. This made for some very laid-back days where we couldn’t cycle more than fifteen kilometres as the road climbed so rapidly, but it also meant some very dubious campsites and one particularly bad nights sleep perched on scree, beside a hairpin bend just kilometres from the top of the pass. Apart from occasional mild headaches, doses of insomnia above 4000 metres and waking in the night gulping for more oxygen, we suffered little with the altitude. We met other cyclists though who hadn’t taken time to acclimatize and were feeling sick, dizzy and generally rough.
The first and highest of the mountain passes led us to a stunningly long tarmac descent to the water-less Morey Plains, a high plateau area between mountain passes. We had plans to detour to the Tso Mori Lakes, renowned for their beauty and bordering with Tibet, but the lack of drinking water, and the deeply rutted sand-road heading in that direction quickly changed our minds. We stuck to the main route towards the town of Pang, through scenes with shadowed ridges of rock like dinosaur spines protruding from rainbow, sandy expanses.
We descended into a deep gorge, its whimsical weathered pinnacles of rock like sand-dribble castles, to the town of Pang. Rolling into it’s windblown centre, we suppressed our disappointment as it appeared to be nothing more than a military camp with a few civilian tents outside the fence marking the army base. Not surprisingly, there is a strong military presence in Ladakh. Sandwiched between Muslim Pakistan, Hindu India and Buddhist Tibet and China, it is a peaceful yet strategically-located land that has seen war and fighting. Only a few day’s bumpy ride west of Leh lie Srinigar and Kashmir, home to years of fighting and Islamic militant activity. Just a few hours north of Leh, over the Khardung-La (the world’s highest motorable road at 5602m) is the Nubra Valley, gateway to the Siachen Glacier, where India and Pakistan have been firing missiles in a fifteen year military stalemate. The air is so thin that mortar trajectories can’t be estimated accurately and 97% of all the fatalities have been caused by cold, altitude or avalanches! Despite the turbulent political history, Ladakh is absolutely safe, and it’s strategic Himalayan location and unique culture make it a fascinating place to visit, if you can take the ‘towns’ with a dose of khaki.
The only town of any size and permanence along the route from Leh to Manali, is Keylong, built on the steep side of a stunning valley where turquoise water gushes from the glaciers that peek their snouts over the edge of high hanging valleys, and colourful gompas (monasteries) perch high on the slopes above the town. The other towns and villages along the route, if not army camps, are for road workers that come from Nepal and Bihar to keep the road open in summer, or are temporary lines of ‘dhabas’ – white circular tents made from old Indian army parachutes. As we cycled, these became welcome cosy havens for “chi” (tea), chapattis, omelettes and dal. Many of these dhabas are dismantled or closed after the third week of September, whilst their owners escape to Leh or Manali before the road is closed with snow.
The region freezes solid in winter, and we froze semi-solid each evening when the sun fell behind the jagged ridges and sent us into shadow. Trekking or skiing along the frozen surface of the Zanskar River is the only winter access to the Zanskar Valley, and a suitably novel activity to attract adventure-seeking tourists (the Chadar Ice Trek). The other unique winter sport we discovered from an innovative entrepreneur in Manali is Yak-Skiing. He invented this new ‘extreme-sport’, where the naïve (or crazy?) tourist is tied to a rope that is extended up a snowy slope, around a strong tree, and downhill to a yak. The skier holds a bucket of nuts, which they throw handfuls of, onto the ground, enticing the yak to charge down the hill towards the nuts, and in the process pulling the skier uphill! And what happens if the yak sees something better and keeps running?
Days of cycling and our energy was slowly ebbing, but we saw the road climb yet again to dizzy heights. “Surely not!” we exclaimed on one occasion when we spied a truck marking the precarious line of the road high in the heavens above us. We started to dream about more relaxed styles of holiday. A camper van in Corsica maybe, instead of the constant up and down, but what else should we have expected in cycling across the Himalayas! The road climbs over four major passes – the Taglang La (5328 m), the Lachlung La (5060 m), Baralacha La (4883 m) and the Rohtang Pass (3978 m).
The further south we cycled, the more classically Himalayan the mountains became. They held more snow and we could hear giant chunks of ice rumbling thunder as they crashed from the hanging glaciers down with the waterfalls that poured into the rivers of life below us. The valleys became more lush and green and every patch of land possible was terraced and cultivated. Entering Himachel Pradesh at Sarchu, the monsoon moving north from India, begins to dabble in the mountains and the sky became more punctuated with clouds, and the afternoon wind stronger.
We began to enjoy the more relaxed greener scenery, and the ability to shelter beneath pine trees from the hot afternoon sun. But our relaxation didn’t last long, as we heard news that the only bridge over a major river at Koksar, fifty kilometres ahead of us, had been broken as two trucks tried to cross it at the same time and put part of the bridge in the river! The police, army and civilian engineers were all working on it and we heard estimates from two days to two weeks before it would be usable again. With limited time left to reach Manali, we decided our best plan was to turn up and discover the situation and options for ourselves.
Hundreds of stranded trucks and people crowded and clamoured at the river banks. A few days previously the bridge had been crossable if you were willing to balance along some girders, but by now our only option was a small metal basket hanging from a sagging, precarious looking zip-wire, in which the police were not willing to send bicycles, let along a three-metre long ridiculous contraption! Days and much persuasion later, nerves on edge, we somehow balanced ourselves and all our clutter across the icy torrents, and would have breathed deep sighs of relief had we not immediately had to tackle the final climb to the Rohtang La.
The final pass was a typical Scottish scene, thick cloud swirling and concealing the ridges and tops, and a bitter damp wind biting through our thermals. We quickly descended into the warmer valley folds, cliffs reminiscent of Yosemite climbing from lush green vegetation, high falls of water as long white streaks through the grey walls of rock and forests thick with pine. It was difficult to believe that only a few hundred kilometres north were the dry desert vistas of Ladakh.
We zigzagged and screeched our brakes through seventy downhill kilometres of this wet, luscious land. We raced to reach Manali before darkness, through crowded village streets, a busier, less laid-back feel in Himachel Pradesh than Ladakh, and chose a sparkly hotel that promised a good price and a suite of luxury beds. Hotel porters rushed to brush the splattered mud off us and our bags before allowing us inside! Our anticipated elation of reaching the end dissolved after just one night of heavenly sleep in a comfy Indian bed, so large it could have swallowed us, and we couldn’t resist another day in the saddle, wandering down the valley in the general direction of home.
WHEN TO GO
The road between Leh and Manali is usually open between early June and mid-September, but from then on you can’t be certain when the snow will arrive and the road closed, though often it is open until mid-October. Once the weather changes, bridges are actually removed to stop people using the dangerous landslide-prone roads. Sudden changes in weather and landslides are common, and the route is most likely to be free of snow from mid-July to early-September. Many of the roadside ‘dhabas’ (tent restaurants with beds) are closed in the third week of September. The first two weeks of September coincide with the Ladakh Festival – a cultural fortnight involving polo, crafts, music etc. and can also be slightly quieter than August with other tourists.
A number of international airlines fly to Delhi from the UK. British Airways and KLM both offer competitive rates – we flew with KLM via Amsterdam as it was easier and cheaper for Scottish departures. Prices vary between £500 - £700. If cycling from Manali northwards, there are direct ‘luxury’ buses from Delhi to Manali that take about 16 hours. If cycling from Leh southwards (as we did), you can fly into Leh – a spectacular flight over the Himalayas, but prone to delays due to its dependence on weather – with Jet Airways or Indian Airlines. Prices from Delhi to Leh are in the region of £90 one way.
The sun shines strong at these altitudes so a long-sleeved cool thin shirt and headgear for the sun are a must…preferably in a good ‘dirt-concealing’ colour. It’s burning in the sun, cool in the shade and water bottles freeze at night. You need it all, from sunhats and cool protective wear to a four-season sleeping bag and down jacket, for when the sun dips behind the mountains. The road surface is very bumpy for long sections so decent cycling gloves and a well-worn saddle are both good ideas!
DANGERS / ANNOYANCES
From a cycling perspective, the wind is one of the most likely annoyances. If cycling from North to South the headwind can become very strong after around 11am, blowing the mica sand into small dust-devils and generally making what should be easy cycling feel like very hard work. We adopted a pattern of early starts and afternoon rest. The altitude is obviously a challenge - most of the route is above 3500m, and a substantial chunk of this is above 4500m. Oxygen is short and breathlessness, disrupted sleep and a dry mouth are all likely. If you take the climbs steadily (the recommended ‘High Altitude Medicine’ line is that you don’t sleep more than 300m higher than the previous night) then you shouldn’t suffer any other problems, but familiarise yourself with the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and take plenty of time at the start to acclimatize properly before exertion (we took four days).
The area is a high altitude desert, so water is short in sections of the route – particularly between Rumtse and Pang. Plan with this in mind, and carry plenty of water in this section particularly.
The road can be busy with trucks, transporting oil and goods to Ladakh during the only six weeks that the road is fairly snow-free, so cycle carefully, particularly on the hairpin bends. The trucks don’t spoil the cycling but can be an annoyance at times, when meeting a convoy of them.
Ladakh is a strategically important and sensitive part of India. There is a big army presence in the region. Cycling west from Leh to Kargil is currently safe, but further west to Srinigar and Kashmir is still not recommended (although we met travellers who had visited and Ladakhis reported it was better than it had been). Kashmir is still unsettled with Islamic militant activity and foreign office advice during our trip was not to risk going there.