Highway to Heaven
By: Naveen Barongpa
Location: Leh, Ladakh – INDIA
Also featured in Issue #17 | Sept 2013
Our team member Naveen Barongpa is one aggressive rider from the Himalayas. This 30 years old has covered some epic hidden single tracks to famous and demanding routes. Recently he cycled on the famous Manali to Leh route leading a group. Though he has cycled this route couple of times but this time he got a chance to explain how it goes on this famous route which is on list of many mountain bikers around the world.
This tour was organized by one of the famous guides ‘Raju Sharma’ from Manali who is probably one of the first bicycle tour operators from Manali. He has also inspired many cyclists from the region. This year I had an opportunity to lead this bike tour with 9 riders from the UK, Ireland and Germany who were all set to cross some of the highest passes in the world on their bikes.
The first riding day, this was a 40Km warm-up ride to a nearby place ‘Naggar’ which is one the attractions of Kullu District. The ride was mellow until we found the only female rider in our group Charlie had a crash and bruised her knee badly. Everybody thought the Charlie’s ride to our main destination is already over. But the tough lady did not give up and ignored that part and continued with the ride. Not bad! The day was wrapped up with an early dinner as we had to leave early the following day.
As I have ridden to Leh couple of times many people ask me how to prepare for this tour. It’s not too technical and can be fun if done properly. Just make sure you have trained for climbs in advance and acclimatized well. The combination of right equipment makes it even better. Though many tour operators offer rental bikes, but I would suggest you to bring your own bike and tools with basic spares like tubes, tire and bleeding kit if you use hydraulic brakes.
The most common problem found on rental bikes are loose bottom brackets and horribly adjusted cantilever brakes which can be a pain in the @$$ during your tour. We did not require panniers as we had backup vehicles carrying our luggage and other stuff. Made life so much easy!
We cycled to Marhi on day 2 without any problems, but it rained on the last stretch making the place cold. Our tents were already pitched and the dinner was being prepared by wonderful cooks who were travelling with us. Quite a luxury trip I must say. Later our friend Vineet surprised us.. bit drenched he was forced to stay with us that night as the visibility was almost 0 because of dense fog + clouds and rain. I thought it’d be cool to cycle down half a Km to Vineet while he was climbing the last stretch. This decision made the 2nd crash victim of this tour. I don’t even want to mention how it happened.
The next morning we all witnessed the much needed sun rise and got ready to cross the first pass of this tour known as ‘Rohtang Pass’. It’s another tourist attraction for people who visit Manali. After bit of struggle, we all conquered it and were on our way to Keylong after couple of photo sessions. This is the day when most of the people do feel tiredness because of high altitude. After ignoring the altitude tiredness and sun burns we carried on to our todays destination ‘Keylong’.
Note: If you are a foreign national (who does not have an Indain passport), you will be required to stop at Koksar and Darcha for identity check for security reasons.
We continued our ride to Patseo the next day crossing Darcha which is the last village. After this we would see civilization in Leh. It started raining when we reached Patseo which was quite unusual. It rained so much that the water level started rising and we had to move our campsite to a safer place.
The next day was a pretty long one… all the way to Sarchu. This route is one of the most interesting one with lot of good scenery and a stunning blue lake called ‘Suraj Tal’ which is the source to River Bhaga. How can one not stop and take photos here? We carried on and the smile on our face started fading away when we started the climb to our next pass in Zanskar range ‘Bara-lacha La’ at 4890m! This pass connects Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh to Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. To make this better; heavy rainfall became an obstacle and there was no option but to cross it ASAP. We reached the campsite all drenched and cold. We were informed that this was the heaviest rainfall in last 4 year in Sarchu area. We had to ignore the rest of story and changed quickly.
The fifth day was a rest-day and we chilled out in Sarchu campsite. Most of us cleaned the bikes and washed our riding clothes. This evening we had a mini party assisted by rum and lot of dancing. This was good enough to complete the remaining 5 days of riding. After crossing and camping at places like Whisky Nallah, Tsokar and Lato we reached our final destination ‘LEH’!
Our fellow riders Julian and Ray who were acclimatized properly to the Himalayan terrain cycled so fast on the last day, while David ignored all the speed breakers and the broken section on his full suspension bike. We reached our hotel in Leh where chilled beer was waiting for us. Our hotel ‘Ladakh Palace’ was very clean and we were honestly glad to see bathroom with hot water shower!
For a change we all were dressed in non-cycling clothes and ready to spend some money in shopping and good food. While you must be thinking that the ride is over… well there was another day of hardcore climb to Khardung-La at 5359m. It is the highest motorable road in the world. However there have been some debates recently which claims that there are more higher motorable roads than Khardungl-La. But who cares really? The ride to Khardung-La was an optional one and only two people from our group ‘Dirk’ from Germany and ‘Julian’ from Amsterdam decided to conquer this pass with me. This is pretty tough and it took us 7 hours to complete this 39Km of climb. And we did it! After taking couple of winning shots we witnessed something sad and not funny. People shuttling their bikes all the way to Khardung-La to take photos with their bike and claiming that they conquered! And some individuals coming to us and request to borrow our bikes so that they can take photos and claim that they did it! We got bit upset with these requests and did not allow these people to borrow our bikes for posing shots and false claims. The three of us cooled down at the world highest cafeteria for a while and descended down all the way to the town which was super! This was another excuse to celebrate and have more beer and this tour was officially over… until next time.