Sunday, April 15, 2018

Himalayan VeloYeti's

Many plans are hatched and shelved owing to various factors and this turned out to be the case last year. One of them was to explore the Himalayas on a rented Royal Enfield Bullet. Yet another shelved project was a mega drive Bangalore - Leh - Bangalore. Years passed until 2016 when the real action starts but not without its own set of twists in tale. Fewer people leads to ease of management in terms of logistics and 'the few' - Kiran, Putta and I. Due to unforeseen circumstances Kiran confirmed that he wouldn't be able to travel and that left us in much doubt whether we should cancel and shift plans for August. Oh and I forgot to mention, the original plan was to travel late August which was pre-poned and booked to last week of June and now we were on the brink of cancelling and booking the trip for August. So much adrenaline for the trip. Then considering various other factors we finally decided to go ahead with the scheduled date for June as we didn't want to go over the planning phase all over again. A week before departure, we decide to visit Decathlon for some shopping. 

1. 2x Btwin plastic Bottle cages 
2. 2x to Bottler holder mount (front fork).
3. 2 Fleece full sleeve shirts.
4. Tribord Aquashoes 50 Black.

19th June :: The due day arrives and with some last minute packing in a hurry I book an Uber for 3AM and we take the ORR and then a detour to palace gutahalli to pickup Putta. A not so busy scene greeted us at airport and we cleared the security check in no time. An uneventful wait for the cabin crew and once we spotted them, boarding was swift and quick. Landed at Delhi with a pressing concern of where to spend the next 10hrs before we boarded the overnight the bus to Manali. As per the original plan the layover at Delhi was to be spent at Kiran's friend's house but it was about 15kms from the bus terminal. So we decided against it and the rampant search for a hotel started for a stay to just get some rest. Managed to find one 200mts away from the bus stand. However carrying the two bike bags certainly did have a toll on the shoulder. We felt bad that the strava/garmin wasn't available to track our efforts. We had to haul the two bike bags up this flight of stairs. 

Landed at Delhi Airport and heading to Metro

And.. the Delhi Metro

Putta with the looks "Stairs my old Nemesis"

Delhi was at a muggy and sweltering 45deg C. Next stop, a juice center and he asked if we wanted large serving and we gladly obliged only to realize that it was a hoddle instead. 

Next we headed for lunch and back to the room for some more rest till evening. The thought of roaming Delhi via metro was dropped as we continued rest till it was time to board the bus. We hired a cycle rickshaw to carry our bike bags and we walked along. However the we were in awe when he asked us to sit in the rickshaw and carry us too. Only bags loaded in rickshaw till the main entrance to the Bus Terminal and then we waited for another hour for the boarding. 

Bikes on a trike

A familiar sight of Himsuta Volvo greeted us and we quickly loaded both bikes and settled down in the last seats of the bus which were the only two available for the date of travel. An additional INR 600 was charged for the bikes and we soon were looking at the sights and trying to soak in the sights as we exit Delhi. The dinner stop was at a place called Jassons Sheesh Mahal, Sonipat. This is one place where the food was excellent. Later I realized that we were in Haryana and that put the quality of the parantha and paneer in perspective. Truly a foodie's delight. 

A sublime tummy treat 

Awaiting bus to Manali at ISBT

Jassons Sheesh Mahal

Post dinner it was slumber mode on. I woke up just as bus was traversing the Swargat ghat. I couldn't get much sleep after 5 so just kept looking at the scenery and soon got a chance to see the force of the water as the floodgates of a small hydroelectric dam were open enroute Manali. The traffic thickened as we neared Kullu and that slowed the travel about 30km to Manali in the same pace. The bus was half empty by now as quite a few passengers got off at Kullu. Putta was awake and ready for Manali. As always the excitement levels were high and we were eagerly waiting to check in to Drifters Inn. 

Luxury stay at Drifters Inn

This turned out to be a super good location and an open terrace with lots of space to unpack and assemble the bikes. Excellent hospitality from the velo-friendly Nishant and team who run this place. I wanted to unpack and start assembling the bike soon but then looking at the comfort of the bed postponed it by an hour. Putta on the other hand started clawing at the packaging and ripping it open but with a method to madness. Within the next 1.5hrs the bikes were assembled, accessories fitted and the bike bags and packing materials segregated.

Getting the beasts ready

Tusker's bike all set to rock n roll.

I was a 100% confident that the bikes wouldn't be handled as expected and I'm glad to report that the airlines (Jet Airways) maintained the expectation. When reassembling bikes. Both bikes had the RD hanger was bent and it took a while to get it back to shape. Putta had shifting issues and the rear wheel on KHS simply wouldn't fall in place and would stay stuck at the dropout. However after a bit of struggle with a flathead screwdriver things looked better. The bikes were now ready and so were we. With the bikes now assembled it was time to test. What a perfect test tract right by the Inn. The gradient was just what was need to test shifting at the right time, braking while descending. 

Stunning view of the valley. 

We were huffing and puffing as we rode almost a km just in that lane by first ascending and the gradient is about as good as the last hairpin of Nandi hills :) Woohoo!!  Had a sumptuous lunch and dinner. Ended up seeing Yak for the first time. We managed to run through the checklist one last time before preparing for Marhi/Madi. 

Here comes a garbage bag to the rescue. I used this for the entire trip to keep the handlebar bag dry. The seat post bag had a dedicated rain cover. We decided to top up our tanks before start so we headed to the hotel adjacent to the Lazy dog lounge. Superb view of the river Manaslu while aloo parantas silently slipped in. 

The sumptuous breakfast

My platter

The other group riding the same route but with additional days on saddle.

Unpredictable weather, the adrenaline rush, cool climate, a perfect blend of factors for a great start. Time to get on the saddle and head towards the snowy mountains. The same ones that we'd been reviewing on our workstations back in Bengaluru. As soon as we joined the Manali-Leh highway we were riding alongside river Beas with a stunning view of the snow capped mountains. Out come the cameras and the click-fest begins. No specialized equipment but just a MotoX Gen1 for the job and I'm glad to report it fared better than i expected. 

First view of the snow capped mountains

On the way to Marhi

The climb was steady at approximately 4-5% gradient and scenic. Truly a bliss in the hills. We caught up with another cycling group that had halted for breakfast however we continued our journey as we were in cruise mode. As we climbed higher and higher, cold breeze kept us company. There was considerable traffic. Wave either a vehicle to overtake if there's room to do so else signal them to slow down till the oncoming traffic clears. Even better, if there's shoulder for you to stop, then let them pass and you continue and this is a priority for larger vehicles likes trucks and buses. I doubt there are fewer places in the world where you fail to find some numskulls but this highway certainly ain't one of them. Most of the vehicles from other states, maintain distance and respect cyclists but the vehicles from Delhi turned out to be the nasty ones with utter disregard for safety. 

Halfway to Marhi

The usual traffic headed towards Rohtang

Sheer beauty all around.

Off saddle Day 1 just before Marhi check post

We managed to reach Marhi by 2 and had a sumptuous fried rice and decided to push on and reach Khoksar so we started by 3 pm and after about 3 km we stopped to figure out the time taken to get to Khoksar. Although we could cross Rohtang in a couple of hours for (16 km) but there were no options for stay and we had to descend to Khoksar to find accommodation which was 28 km from Rohtang pass. After a quick chat we decided to return to Marhi and look for a place to stay. A superlative decision in the nick of time. We got back to check-post at Marhi and attempted to look for tents and we spotted a homestay (police quarters) and found out that all places were booked however, the officer agreed to let his bunker beds for our use. So we quickly unpacked and switched to comfort attire and the bikes parked inside the homestay. This place was also pre-booked for a group "Himalayan running challenge" and another cycling group that were to stay in the tents that were pitched out on the lawn. One by one the riders started arriving and the runners got ready to settle in for the night. We enjoyed some french fries and tea at a dhaba as we looked up towards Rohtang pass and the mist descending fast the visibility soon dropped to about a km. Within an hour we were completely surrounded by clouds and the switchbacks to the pass were no longer visible. 

The super snug bunker beds truly were a 5 star treatment for the not so weary body or mind but from the chilling winds bringing the temperatures right down to single digit. After reading about reviews about altitude sickness, oxygen tanks, medication etc I wondered if I would manage some uninterrupted sleep and the next thing I know is waking up at 5.30.  and was lazing in bed until 6 only to get ready and start for Jispa. We bid adieu to our host and left for Rohtang pass. There was good news waiting as we were informed that there would be hardly any traffic as the roads were closed for tourists except for ones traveling to Leh/beyond. So imagine our joy when the only traffic was a car every kilometer and some truck traffic (road works) enroute Rohtang pass. 

Soon we reached the pass and stopped for photos. Rohtang by the way means pile of corpses. 

We continued out journey after cheering on some runners. Once we noticed the descent to Khoksar we were mighty glad that we didn't ride to khoksar the previous evening as it might've been 7 or 8 pm by the time we made it to khoksar. This turned out to be the worst of the stretch on the entire journey. 28kms of bone jarring descent. Soon we were along the Chenab river and we crossed over to the other side and continued our journey towards jispa. We did stop yet again for the staple food Maggi :). I wonder how these places survived during the time when Maggi was banned. 

Refueling after descent 

We prepared for the sufferfest of bad roads over the next 20kms. However, I wouldn't call it bad roads as the KHS Alite1000 and the Polygon Xstrada were at their natural habitat. Especially after the Rohtang descent the rest of the roads felt simply superb. This condition continued till Tandi bridge. Met another cyclist riding a DH bike and coasting the downhill found that the chain had cut and he didn't have a link. I did mention about the availability of the link but only of an 8spd. But he refused the offer as his house was just a couple of kms from that point. We crossed Sissu and with Maggi fueling us towards Keylong there was a 20km descent towards Tandi that is perfect for MTB's with loose gravel with gentle switchbacks and Putta was riding some good speeds while i maintained safe distance for any emergency braking. There were also sections of sand and we experienced understeer  and oversteer as we continued descending to Tandi. About, 15kms to Keylong town the metal disappeared, loose gravel and hissing water pipe along roadside with occasional sprays kept us on high alert. As we entered Keylong, a nasty surprise awaited as we got to know that all hotels were full due to Sindhu Darshan festival. Instead managed to draw cash at ATM to sustain us for the rest of the trip and made a last ditch effort to find a stay at a place adjacent to Keylong bus stand. There were beds available in Dormitory but the place looked shady as there were people playing cards with liquor bottles strewn around. So instead we continued riding to Jispa. Managed to reach hitch a ride in an pickup truck for about 15km and by about 5.30 checked-in to a tent. At places like these warmth is a luxury. This campsite was right by riverbed of river Bhag. (Singhania's Big Cat Camp). 

Gravel roads to Keylong

A couple of kms before Keylong town

Campsite for Day 2 at Jispa

Beautiful mountain view on one side 

River view on the other side

We had a chat with Tenzin who owns the campsite and turns out that during the season time he works at the campsite and the second half of the year is spent at Goa when Jispa no longer sees tourist traffic and instead nature is on its 'wilderness reclamation' cycle. Post a quick dinner we retire for the night and dream about the sights and sounds that await over the days that lie ahead. 

Jispa 6:30AM - We wake up and get ready to start by 07:30 and this was against the plan of starting by 6 for the increased mileage planned for today. Today was the ride from Jispa to Sarchu. A breakfast of bread butter jam (with an overdose Jam request) we start our journey. A rolling terrain leads us to the first bridge at Darcha and from this point on it climbs for 2-3kms till you notice the whole valley with meandering streams of what is supposed to be a river. We continue to ride to Patseo. The rolling was a lot slower than expected but that was the point with a couple of days in buffer if we decided to halt early during any of the riding. The continuous climb to zingzing bar was both scenic and everlasting. There is an eerie quiet especially when there are no vehicles for miles around you. 

Enroute Patsio

The first of the stream crossings

A picturesque lake at Patsio

Enroute ZingZingbar

There were however some road workers patching certain stretches and we waved as we rode past. We stopped for a late lunch at zing zing bar. Here starts the first signs of altitude sickness. Putta and I double up on servings of tea in quick succession. Here we met Rich (Richard Wardle) who was riding solo and with a whole lot more lugguage (tents, sleeping bag, camera) on a nicely equipped tourer. 

The elevation map Richard was carrying

Settling down for the night. Day 3 at ZingZingbar

Richard's fully loaded tourer

Need of the hour, a selfie

Campsite at ZingZingBar

As Putta switched to powernap mode I too was tucked in and watching the tourists as they stopped for lunch/snacks. A long conversation with varied topics from cars to food to riding. Rotis, Aloo gobi gravy and hot steaming rice at that altitude, heavenly! Rich checked into a tent and we preferred the bunker beds probably due to the proximity to the kitchen (Same large tent that accommodates about 10-15 beds and integrated kitchen :) ). Surprising to see that there is a lot of light till about 8 - 8.30 pm prevailed as the topics varied discussed about the ride plans and a long conversation follows related to cars. Its a lazy start the next day ride to Sarchu. The steady climb from ZingZingbar continues to Baralachla pass. 

The scenery greeting us keeps getting better day after day. A photogenic place this one turned out to be. Vishaal Taal was a beautiful lake formed of glacial melt and the second encounter of pristine waters and the first being the streams that we had been crossing right from Rohtang pass and another Taal after patseo. Rich had overtaken us and was there for quite a while and we stopped for some photos. Being surrounded by peaks covered in patches of snow. WHOA!! 

After descending from Baralachla and stopped at Bharatpur

Marmot spotting.

At Sarchu

Resting till dinner is served

Bikes resting

Then the bone shaking descent starts towards Bharatpur and we stop for tea and Maggi again. Putta gets a power nap of about 20 mins and then we head towards Sarchu. The familiar black patches of tarmac soon disappear and we are on a road  as per google maps but in reality it is dusty rocky stupendously beautiful MTB haven. This photo ought to sum up the best of both worlds (cycling and automobile). The second exquisite wildlife we spotted was the marmot. We reach Sarchu by 4pm and stop by the Adventure Club campsite which was planned as per itinerary. Rich wanted to ride a few more kms 7kms as per his plan. The tent was superb and food great. Putta had trouble getting sleep due to constant coughing. We were introduced to a wonderful product called Warmee which is a pouch with chemicals that reacts to air and keeps one warm for ~8hrs. It can be a value add but again weight means everything during the climbs and one might want to carefully weigh the options while packing. The next day we had breakfast and started for Pang. We managed to clear the Gata loops and crossed Nakeela pass. Then downhill towards Whiskynalla and we climb again to cross Lachungla pass. 

On the way to Pang

The Delhi - Leh bus

Lachungla pass

Blissful trail like roads with absence of asphalt worked quite well. We did encounter a convoy of army trucks and also the legendary bus that drives from Delhi to Leh with tickets of 1600INR (and INR2500 that includes a stay at Keylong) Putta's condition worsened as we reached Pang. We halted at dormitory as Putta tried to rest with heavy breathing. Later that evening we crossed the main road where there was a State (Jammu) owned medical camp and Putta was given oxygen as his blood -oxygen level had dropped to ~35 :(. After an hour he felt better and we came back to the dorm. I ordered a Thuppa noodles with spicy broth and settled in for the night. Another dose of oxygen in the morning and we cleared Pang and entered Morray plains.

A tongue tingling palette - Thuppa

Morray plains

A brand new day and a brand new sight. Perfect place for a time trial as its mostly flat till Debring after which the long and steady climb to the second highest pass Taglang La starts. The last 2kms were breathtaking. Quite literally due to lower oxygen levels and the speeds dropped to 5-6kph. Stopped at the summit for some photos as usual and then the long descent to Rumptse and over to Upshi and Leh. Hats off / Helmets off to BRO(Border Roads Organization) as they have had done a superb job of asphalting this section till Rumptse. 

Ribbon of perfection - Descending second highest pass Taglangla

At Leh - Rest day.

Protein loaded diet. 

The ride was all downhill with overtaking a lot of trucks and some super sweet corners. I'm mighty impressed with the GEAX tubeless tyres that gripped like a gecko. Stopped at Rumptse for tea and we headed to Leh as we still had about 3-4hrs of light left. The roads continued to be patchy from here on and we finally reached Leh. Finding the location of the hotel was tricky but the week of riding was certainly the best ride of my life. 


I urge any cycling enthusiast to ride this stretch once. The distance may sound a lot, the altitude may seem mind boggling however, once you are on the saddle your mind will yearn to see the ever changing scenery day after day of this insane awesomeness on the Manali - Leh highway. I certainly wouldn't dismiss a second tour of this region and maybe extend it to make a loop and ending at a different location possibly exploring Nubra valley and explore more of Jammu. 

The Grand Finale - Khardungla

Itinerary on paper:
Day 1 - Manali to Marhi
Day 2 - Marhi to Jispa
Day 3 - Jispa to Sarchu
Day 4 - Sarchu to Pang
Day 5 - Pang to Rumptse
Day 6 - Rumptse to Leh
Day 7 - Rest day and bike check
Day 8 - Ride to Khardungla.

Itinerary we ended up with:
Day 1 - Manali to Marhi
Day 2 - Marhi to Jispa
Day 3 - Jispa to Keylong
Day 4 - Keylong to Sarchu
Day 5 - Sarchu to Pang 
Day 6 - Pang to Leh
Day 7 - Rest and recovery
Day 8 - Ride to Khardungla
Day 9 - Return to Bangalore

Trip cost: 
Bangalore to Delhi (Jet Airways) INR4257
HRTC Volvo Delhi to Manali INR1314
Leh to Bangalore (Jet Airways) INR13277