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The Manali Leh Highway by bicycle – a classic

The Manali-Leh Highway: The Facts

So many times we have organized the Manali-Leh Highway as a Bicycle tour and now it’s actually the first time I write something on my blog about this great bike tour!

The Manali-Leh Highway: 475 km long, five high mountain passes, two of them over 5000 meters high, open only for months a year, one of the highest pass road in the world.

But these are just the hard facts of the now infamous and popular highway.

If you roll down the passes Rothang, Baralacha and Lalung on bad and unpaved sand slopes, you quickly forget that you are on a national highway and not just on a small mountain road.

But every year more and more sections are renewed by the so-called BRO (Border Road Organisation), an organization of the Indian army, and now the majority of the route is well developed and one rolls pleasantly over the wide asphalted road, at least as long as it does not go uphill.

The ascents to the passes are long, not very steep, but they lead high. The air gets much thinner and many cyclists are amazed how much time a few kilometers can actually take. They definetly take the breath away.

But the joy is all the greater when, after an hour-long ascent, you have finally reached the pass, with its colorful flags blowing in the wind. Then there is and endless descent waiting through a spectacular mountain landscape that is constantly changing.

Traffic is never really bad here.

Yoga at the camp

In addition to cyclists, mainly motorcycle groups and taxis with tourists and trucks are on the way. The highway is mainly used and maintained by the army. Every now and then, an army column with 20 trucks can come to pass you. Then you prefer to pause once more and let the column and dust pass.

On the highway between Darcha and Rumtse, apart from temporary tent cities every 50 kilometres or so, is nothing but mountains. At this temporary places you can stop for food or to spend the night.

If you can’t do without luxurious inns, a warm shower and Western food, you have nothing to do here. But if you love adventure, are looking for a sporting challenge and want to get out of your comfort zone (and of course you are a passionate cyclist) you have to come to India to cycle through the high mountain deserts of Lahaul and Ladakh!

The beginning

It starts from Manali. Manali is a tourist resort at an altitude of 2000 meters, fourteen hours (500 km) from Delhi.

Here everything is wonderfully green, a little lower and in the monsoon season it can also happen that it gets a little rainier. At least the clouds are very low and when you cycle the first two days up to the 3980 m high Rothang Pass, you have to expect thick clouds of fog. The first camp we set up at an altitude of 3200 meters in Marhi – after a 36 km long continuous ascent.

But after the crossing of  the Rothang Pass on day 2 a small miracle happens: Suddenly it clears up, the view becomes wide and you have a great view of the surrounding high mountains, with their ruggedness and the glaciers.

While the ascent to the pass happens on a well-developed road, the descent from the pass to Koksar, 20 km away, is quite rough and you get a first idea of why you are on a mountain bike.

In Koksar there is a delicious milk tea and the first of four checkpoints where you have to present your passport to the police.

Through the Lahaul Valley

Then it always goes along the Chandra River on a fairly flat track, through tranquil little villages, pea, potato and cabbage fields. on the left and right side, ever-higher mountains proudly rise to the sky. Countless waterfalls and deep gorges complete the picture. The second night we spend just before Tandi on the opposite side of the river. Brave people take a refreshing dip in the river, while the others feast on the freshly prepared snacks that the chef sends us out of the kitchen tent.

Our chef Anil

It’s a bit windy here, but the sky is clear and a star-studded night awaits us, even the Milky Way is clearly visible.

We leave civilization

After just under seven kilometers we reach the district capital Keylong and pass the last permanent market for the next 300 kilometers on day 3. In the distance we can see a snow-covered mountain with the silhouette of the “Lady of Keylong”, which stands out from the white snow on the black rock.

In the background the Lady of Keylong

We continue our ride to Darcha, the last village in the Himachal Pradesh state. For the next three hundred kilometers- till the first village in Ladakh- we will no longer encounter any civilization.

Here is also the next checkpoint. After a fortifying lunch consisting of sandwiches, boiled potatoes, eggs and chocolate bars, we head uphill again to Patseo at 3700 m at the foot of the next pass, the Baralacha La. Here, next to small bubbling streams we will stay overnight.

Camp Patseo

To the Mid-point of the Manali Leh Highway

The thirty-kilometre ascent up to Baralacha Pass is, well, long and relentless. Especially the last kilometers from the beautiful Suraj Lake to the very top stretch never seems to end. During soome tours we even had snowfall on the top of the pass at 4880 meters. But often we are plessed with sun.

Now only downhill to Sarchu, the center of the route at kilometer 222. Easy, you might think. But it is not! The track is rocky and sandy and very demanding for the whole body. Only the last kilometers we can roll relaxed through the Sarchu plains. The erosions at the riverbed  form particularly spectacular landscapes. It is good, that we are now taking a rest day after four days of cycling.

Acclimatization, laundry and easy walks…

The day break in Sarchu at 4200 meters is necessary for everyone. On the one hand, we need the day to adjust to the height. But also need a body wash, cycle was and the loundry done.

Some of us simply relax, read a book and stroll a little through the nearby tent city. Others take a short hike along the river.

We enjoy the relaxed breakfast, consisting of the Indian specialty “Chana Puri” (chickpea curry with flatbread). There are also cereals and pancakes.

In general, the rest day is characterized by meals and also the lunch and dinner is in no way inferior to the breakfast. After all, we need all the energy for the next four days.

The second half of the tour begins

After the rest day we are happy to be on our bikes again. Today’s fifth stage to Whiskey Nallah is short with just under 40 kilometers, but with a 4900 meter high pass and the 21 Gata Loops – 21 tight turns, also quite crisp. By the way, “Nallah” means stream.

The night at 4800 meters got us well, but wasis crisp cold. The temperatures wcan reach below 0° Celsius, when the sky is clear. One can get rewarded with a shooting star during the nightly walk to the toilet tent.

A pass, the famous Morray Plains and a Salt lake

Camp Whiskey Nallah is located between the two passes Nakeela and Lachung La (5000 meters). While we had already mastered the Nakeela the previous day, we now have to go over the  Lachung La- our first pass over 5000 meters and only 5 km away from the camp. Already from the camp you can see the pass. After the pass, it goes over a bumpy gravel road 20 kilometers downhill through a bizarre sandy landscape, characterized by erosion. Then we arrive at Pang, a large army station with helicopter landing pad and emergency hospital.

After all, we are still at 4600 meters and if there are health problems, we will find the necessary help here. But so far everyone on our tours has been doing well. Touch wood.

From Pang we ride another five kilometers uphill and then it is only 30 kilometers on a nely made and flat rode through the Morray Plains. If you are lucky, even a strong tailwind will blow!

As we roll on, we can see the white tents of the nomadic tribes in the distance, herds of goats and sheep, and even one or the other so-called “Kiang”, the wild donkey.

After thirty kilometres we leave the well-developed highway and ride on a five kilometer long sand path to the camp at the beautiful Tsokar lake. This is a salt lake and nature reserve and offers an idyllic setting.

During a cup of chai and snacks we discuss the next day. Everyone is a little excited, after all it should go over the 5360 m high Tanglang La.

After a dinner consisting of Indian vegetable preparations, rice, pasta and lentils, we go to our tents to sleep early.

The highest pass

It is 30 kilometres of ascent up to the 5360 metre high pass, but the number of altitude metres to be overcome is rather small and just under 600 metres. Both the trucks and us, slowly but steadily meander towards the pass. The air becomes thinner and thinner.

Once at the top everyone is overjoyed and takes souvenir photos of this magnificent experience. It is good that there is even a small tent up here with hot tea, because the violent blowing wind cools us down.

Strengthened by tea and lunch, we make our way down to Rumtse, the first village in Ladakh- an almost 40 km long descent.

Some of us are brave enough to take a shortcut between the bends – the descent is fun and terrific.

Our last camp

Our camp in Rumtse is located outside in a small garden of a local family. Barley, peas and potatoes grow here, there are many streams, everything is green and the old owner walks with her cows through the green fields.

We invite her for a tea and, with the help of our Hindi-speaking guide, we come with her into a conversation.

On the last evening, our chef serves up the right food again: we count more than nine different dishes. The highlight is the cake baked in a pot!

We are all a little sad, after all, it is now time to say goodbye to the accompanying team.

The last stage to Leh

After a farewell the next morning, we start for the last 70 kilometers to Leh. After a fantastic 30 km long descent through villages and great rock formations to Upshi, we ride alongt the river Indus. We pass villages and monasteries.

At the Thikse monastery we stop for lunch and visit the monastery, then it is only 20 kilometers to Leh.

The last 7 kilometers are hard. Now the traffic increases, it goes uphill again and we torment ourselves through the heat. But then finally: We reach the colorfully decorated city gate and have made it! 475 kilometers over five passes from Manali to Leh!!!

Days in Leh

We enjoy our guest house with its garden, sitting on the balconies, enjoying the view and also the hot shower. We walk through the city, visit the sights, such as the City Palace and the Shanti Stupa, go shopping, drink good coffee and eat local specialties. Oh, we are doing well and we make full use of the rest day in Leh.

The next day, for the particularly ambitious of ours, we head up to the highest pass in the world: the more than 5300-metre-high Kardung La. More than 1800 metres of altitude have to be overcome. The pass experience is once again magnificent after 4 1/2 hours of ascent. The long descent back, almost even better!