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. ‘
- 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.
- 40km of 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 four days along the highway.
- Kenji Kenji and his single speed Indian bike made it up triumphantly up the Taglang-la Pass (5333m)!
- Ladakhis in Rumtse village were busy collecting fodder for their animals for the long winter ahead.
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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