The Great Manali-Leh Highway

After an extraordinary  2 weeks that took us out of the incredible Spiti Valley to rejoin the main route to Ladakh, the Manali Leh highway. We have crossed passes over 5300m, slept in roadside dhabbas (truck-stop tents), missed a shower for 8 days, sucked on oxygen thin air, camped alongside shimmering high altitude turquoise lakes, eaten ravenously, delighted in seeing ‘blue sheep’ (bharal) springing effortlessly from rock to rock in the thin air. We submerged ourselves in a geological fantasy of mountains thrown up in all directions and the detail of delicate flowers clinging to the edge of a high pasutres and enjoyed the company of some fascinating cyclists.  Leh, the capital of Ladakh provided us with comforts such as hot water, chocolate cakes and internet alongside the fascinating ancient Buddhist monastaries and the sustainable Ladakhi culture that is changing so rapidly.

The Manali-Leh Highway is an incredible 500km road that cuts across the Himalayas of North India joining the ancient and dry Kingdom of Ladkah from the wetter and greener foothills of the Kullu valley where the town of Manali is nestled. We completed this road classic trip in around 8 days and were constantly blown away by the everchanging landscapes. Physically, it was the ultimate challenge crossing 5 passes, 3 of which were over 5000m and the other 2 just under.

It was great to share the experience with a few other cyclists  we met en route. Matt and Rich from Leeds were doing a charity ride and we all joined up for the final 4 days. Then there was Kenji and Tom, who humbled and impressed us with their inferior cycling equipment. Kenji from Japan bought a single speed indian bike for R250 and managed to complete the entire highway in roughly the same time as us even though it meant pushing up all the passes.  19-year old Tom from London, decided on a whim to hire a bike (which was way rickety, undersized and badly maintained) and assaulted every pass with a 25kg rucksack on his back.

An extract from one day:

‘Here we are in Zing-Zing Bar, below the Baralacha-la pass (4980m). The name sounds so exotic but its more like a little shack based in a pile of rock scree next to a stone-crusher, where the Indian road workers zealously crush rock in freezing conditions. Thank goodness for the little Nepali dhabba, a couple of wooden beams with a plastic covering which offers us a shelter from the near sub-zero temperatures. Dolma, from the Helambu region of Nepal keeps us warm with copious amounts of chai. She is pretty well stocked in this 6mx4m ‘hotel’ – biscuits, shoes, lip-ice, maggi noodles and pens. And she serves up a great thali with greens too. At 7am we watch the Tata trucks ambling down the switchbacks out of the clouds like scurring beetles as they shudder, stagger and groan on their way down.

We begin our 24km ascent, for once the road had more than just a few smatterings of tar, after 2h40min we reach the pass – white and black peaks fringe the skyline while prayer flags whisper their prayers into the wind.  A magical descent , the scenary stunned once more: rumpled and crumpled washed out orange and ochre mountains shaded in purple hues were thrust on either side.  A turqouise glacier-fed river gushed through the valley with soft green wetlands nuturing the river banks. ‘

When the going gets tough, nothing like a few road signs to keep me amused.
When the going gets tough, nothing like a few road signs to keep me amused.
On the way to Keylong
On the way to Keylong
Not quite what I had in mind for such a fabulous name, but I couldnt complain - I could at least feel my toes that night.
Zing Zing Bar at the base of the Baralacha-la pass (4980m): Not quite what I had in mind for such a fabulous name, but I couldnt complain - I could at least feel my toes that night.
Like beetles, the Tata trucks, scurried up and down the pass belching furious fumes!
Like beetles, the Tata trucks, scurried up and down the pass belching furious fumes!
Ben, Carlos, me - Baralacha-la pass, another 4 biggies still to go.
Ben, Carlos, me - Baralacha-la pass, another 4 biggies still to go.
Downhill from here
Downhill from here
Trucks and sheep on the move.Dhabbas at bharatpur below Baralacha-la surprised us with the sophisticated: clean, cosey and a menu that offered more than just rice and dal.
Trucks and sheep on the move.Dhabbas at bharatpur below Baralacha-la surprised us with the sophisticated: clean, cosey and a menu that offered more than just rice and dal.
Now thats one Vehicle at a time!
Now thats one Vehicle at a time!
Landscapes on the way to Sarchu
Landscapes on the way to Sarchu
One of the many dogs that followed us or other cyclists for 20 -30km, near Sarchu.
One of the many dogs that followed us or other cyclists for 20 -30km, near Sarchu.
Halfway to Leh
Halfway to Leh
21 switchbacks up the first part of the 23km long Nakee-la pass (4950m)
21 switchbacks up the first part of the 23km long Nakee-la pass (4950m)
Entertainment on the up..
Entertainment on the up..
Couldnt do without Island Tribe sunscreen nor my soft shell from first ascent! Thanks!
Couldnt do without Island Tribe sunscreen nor my soft shell from First Ascent! Thanks!
Carlos contemplates the Lachalung-la pass (5065m) from the Nakee-la pass (4950m). But first a 200m descent.
Carlos contemplates the Lachalung-la pass (5065m) from the Nakee-la pass (4950m). But first a 200m descent.
 
More fabulous landscapes en route to Pang More fabulous landscapes en route to Pang

 

Dhabbas in Pang. For Rs100 (R14), you can save yourself putting up the tent and sleep comfortably in a communal tent. Toilets are 'open' so mind where you step! Dhabbas in Pang. For Rs100 (R14), you can save yourself putting up the tent and sleep comfortably in a communal tent. Toilets are ‘open’ so mind where you step!

 

The Moray Plains, the first flat cycling in weeks. The Moray Plains, the first flat cycling in weeks.
40km of Moray Plains 40km of Moray Plains
More of the Moray plains More of the Moray plains
Physching ourselves up for the 2nd highest pass. Matt, Rich and Tom (with his 25kg backpack) joined up with us for the four days along the highway. Physching ourselves up for the 2nd highest pass. Matt, Rich and Tom (with his 25kg backpack) joined up with us for  four days along the highway.

 

Kenji and his single speed Indian bike made it up triumphantly up the Taglang-la Pass (5333m)!  Kenji Kenji and his single speed Indian bike made it up triumphantly up the Taglang-la Pass (5333m)!
A convoy of 50 army trucks joined us at the 5333m. Hundreds of these turcks passed us on the way and army encampments blot the landscape. One of the main reasons for building the MH Highway is so that India can keep a close check on its neighbours, Pakistan and China.
A convoy of 50 army trucks joined us at the 5333m. Hundreds of these turcks passed us on the way and army encampments blot the landscape. One of the main reasons for building the MH Highway is so that India can keep a close check on its neighbours, Pakistan and China.
A dot on the landscape, Ben whizzes down to Rumtse
A dot on the landscape, Ben whizzes down to Rumtse
More fabulous downhill
More fabulous downhill

 

Ladakhis in Rumtse village were busy collecting fodder for their animals forthe long winter ahead. Ladakhis in Rumtse village were busy collecting fodder for their animals for the long winter ahead.

 

Kitchen in Rumtse
Kitchen in Rumtse
Typical Ladakhi architecture in Rumtse
Typical Ladakhi architecture in Rumtse
Rinchen of Rumtse
Rinchen of Rumtse
Buddhist chortens marked the way to Leh
Buddhist chortens marked the way to Leh
The stunning Rumtse valley that led us to the Indus River
The stunning Rumtse valley that led us to the Indus River
Richard, Ben and Carlos in the astonishing red valley of Rumtse
Richard, Ben and Carlos in the astonishing red valley of Rumtse
Snacking on momos, before reaching Leh.
Snacking on momos, before reaching Leh.

Bridget Ringdahl

Pedaling has been natural to me since the tender age of three. Cycling is practical, fun, it gets you to the corner café, across countries, continents, keeps you fit and is by far the most efficient and environmentally friendly transport option around, being virtually carbon neutral.

I live in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal which is great cycling country, within 10 minutes I can be bouncing along some of the finest single tracks in the province.

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11 thoughts on “The Great Manali-Leh Highway
  • cass

    glad you had such a good time bridget, great to read about your impressions... makes me miss the place! all the best! cass

    • blondeonbike

      Hey cass, well thanks to you for pointing us in the right direction! We met a few of your friends on the way who seemed disappointed you werent going to be around this year - Lara, in the high alt plains near Komik, the guy from Sunshine Gh in Manali. Can see why you come back here. THat said N.America looks so much more interesting than I thought, through your…

  • so people just join you on a whim, hu? what if i did too (i ask myself..) ? would i be smiling too, with such air of worry-less-ness facing these unbelievable passes and downhills? or will i mainly repeat a "you guys... wait uuuuup" until you are too far away to hear.. i wonder

  • Serena

    Hi! We are two Italian people, we would like to cicle in Ladakh on sepetember and we have some questions about. Can we ask you something about your trip? Can I write here or you prefer to give me your email address? Thank you very much! Serena and Matteo

    • Bridget Ringdahl

      Hi, with pleasure - do send me your questions would be more than happy to give you some tips - you are going to love it! Until later ciao

      • Serena

        Great! So… what was your itinerary? Have you travel indipendently or supported by an agency? Your bike was rented in India? If not, how have you carried your bike till Manali?(did you started to cycle in Manali?)? Are bike allowed on buses? We would like to reach Leh by bus and then started to cycle...have you any counseil about itineraries or buses? Thank you very much Serena

  • Serena

    Great! So... what was your itinerary? Have you travel indipendently or supported by an agency? Your bike was rented in India? If not, how have you carried your bike till Dehli? and till Manali?(did you started to cycle in Manali?)? Why from Manali to Leh and not from Leh to Manali?Is there a particular reason? Thank you very much Serena

  • Great write up... A good read for bikers here too : desolate-expression.blogspot.in

  • Seriously, you guys had a great adventure trip. Would you mind sharing your future travel plans in India?

    • Bridget Ringdahl

      No problem! glad the blogs are of interest and help to you. We hope to come back in 2017 .. I would love to revisit the Spiti valley again!

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