Manali to Rhotang
Bikes blessed we set out to Manali. 6km along the quieter side of the valley to explore the largest town we would see for 10 days. The bottom part was tourist tat, the top part in Old Manali was full of original wooden buildings, cattle at the bottom to warm the first floor and the inhabitants who lived there. The cycling started with a descent over the river, a picture by the sign advertising 474km to Leh and turned into a hot gradual climb towards our destination. On this side of the pass the vistas were green with waterfalls and numerous signs warning us of the dangers on the road. Written in short clipped English Rhyme they would be a constant feature of our cycle north. On the Manali side of the summit lay the campsite. 10 tents pitched on a flat area high up. 3 toilet tents, a wash tent and a kitchen tent, it was something out of the Raj and deeply welcoming. Hot flannel on arrival, afternoon snacks and as much tea as you could drink. At 1900 the dinner bell and we all trooped into a mess tent to be served fabulous curries with a hint of Chinese. First 1 dish then another and just as we thought it had finished another arrived. A small dessert finished the feast and as the night settled in we all retired to our double share tents to await the rest of the trip.
Rhotang to Tandi
Altitude, bed? Who knows as we tossed and turned the night away at 3300 metres. Rain hammered on the flysheet and I wondered what the morning would bring. Setting out first at 0830 , Mahri was pretty deserted and it's dhaba's would be the last port of call as the ones at the top had been removed. The gradient was steady and would remain all the way. A few pieces of unbroken tarmac as the extensive views around engulfed me on the ride up. It was obvious though that I was the rabbit to the racing snakes and after 9km I spied Eric approaching pretty quickly. as the switchbacks were plentiful you got a pretty good idea of how the other 17 would fair. Resigned to my fate I pulled out the camera and decided that simply taking everyone’s pictures as they passed was the way to go. Eric steamed past me in full racing gear. Terry hanging on just sporting a cycling UK backpack. Close to the top the sky cleared and the sun broke through and with the obligatory picture, Paul ushered us down the other side and what a view that was with the valley way below to the right and the Himalayan ridges engulfing the view to the right. (Rhotang 3978 metres) Himalayan winters are hard on roads and this side showed it. Glorious smooth tarmac soon gave way to what can only be described as rubble with seemingly hundreds of road teams smashing rocks, building embankments and trying to repair the way for a new layer of tarmac that on average lasts 3 years. our guide explained that Indians from the 2 poorest states spent 6 months of the year here to fix the place up then returned home their work done Chai and biscuits at Gramphu and along the River Chandra which seemed in full flood as we sailed along with a storming tail wind on a perfect tarmacced road. famous for cauliflowers, peas and seed potatoes the floor of the valley was filled with agricultural endeavour and boxes of produce littered the roadside awaiting collection. Our nights camp was at a fixed camp with an electric point so everyone plugged in and whiled the evening away.
Tandi to Putseo
Tea in bed is lovely. Raj knocked on the tent door and there it was. Toast was popular as well as the omelettes, however chick pea dal tasted great but we still hadn't gone native so sadly it was half eaten. 0900 start and into the sun for the 7km ride to Keylang the only large settlement between Manalli and Leh. The largest settlement we would pass through, village life was in full swing with metal workers, confectionary shops and the ubiquitous English Wine shop. Back on the road we climbed to 3800 metres along a road that seemed to cling to the edge of the mountain as it plummeted to the river below. I'd taken to cycling on right or left depending on the river view and the trucks, cars and motorbikes didn't seem to mind and anyway I was on the precipitous side. Cycling with Glynn, we hit photographic jackpot when we stopped by a group waiting for a bus. Glynn had a patter that introduced himself and he then asked for a picture. All was normal until a small goat herd arrived from the left down the mountain and another larger herd from the right. It was fabulous as the shepherd was friendly and we both took some lovely pictures. If nothing else today that's made my day smiled Glynn. We followed a wide river valley having descended and were last to lunch at the river crossing. Passports checked it over the rickety bridge soon to be replaced by an enormous construction next to it and another shocker as we climbed again on one long zig zag. However for 2 of us there was a bonus because at the far point was the single tarmacced road towards Zanskar. As the start of the new road to Leh it will be due to be tarmacced throughout in the next few years, but for now Keith and I saw it at its pristine best. With the words 'just to the next corner' we went about 2km in and the view opened. Mountains both sides and a raging river centrally a few dogged locals had carved a few fields, glorious. Back at route 3 it continued to climb and in a setting light the shadows on the mountains were bewitching, though the road surface again left a lot to be desired being in a pretty poor state. At 1740 we rolled into a camp site pitched by the river. Raj offered a hot flannel and dinner was the usual delight of mashed potato, mutton, macaroni, cauliflower curry, tuna salad all rustled up on a single burner.
Patseo to Sachu
Tea at 0630 and breakfast at 0700. We'd all survived the river, the streams and the tented toilets as breakfast appeared. The initial part of the ride was flat and fast, and then the climb started through the delightfully named Zing Zang Bar where the first switchback started. The views were extensive. Fabulous rock formations and colours all about us as the mountains towered above us. By 16km everyone had passed me as some had chai in the dhaba and after this it was quite a hard last 16km to the top at 4950m. We regrouped at a dhaba in Bharatpur before descending another wide valley on a road washed away. Below us though fresh tarmac had been laid and one advantage of being at the back was that you got more of it as we came across the road crew laying it down the valley, machine churning away. Into a wide valley with a seemingly endless line of pitched tents to accommodate the fad of motorcycling our route. However our red topped tents were easy to spot as we pulled off to the right and a curried dinner.
Sachu to Whiskey Nalla
The river banks were covered in formations created by erosions producing a very eye pleasing result on the left. Having had our passports checked again we travelled through the settlement that was Sachu, where small shacks advertised themselves as hotels which to be fair aside from the blanketed dhaba’s would be the best you could get in these parts. The road would its way around an enormous river valley before our climb of today with todays guest, the Gata Loops. 21 twists in the sun at an altitude of over 4000 metres, glorious. Over Nakeela where suddenly the weather took a turn for the worst for some. From sun to wind to rain and finally snow. Our campsite was in an oasis, well a settlement in the middle of nowhere, where the tents were a few stream widths from the toilet tent and the dhaba served the most delightful ginger and lemon tea.
Whiskey Nalla to Tso Kar
The Milky Way was amazing, an almost solid stripe of white painted the clear sky. The downside though was a cold cold night at altitude. However the Muscrats burrowing above the site had survived so with breakfast onboard, we finished the climb over Lachunga. Our reward was the most fantastic gorge. A cracked up road led us through fabulous colours, then enormous rock formations and finally the most amazing piece of road building. The road was cut into the rock, tarmac long gone and then spiralled down to the river below. Pang had a line of dhaba’s where lunch was taken. Our reward was a zig zagged climb out of town where we stumbled on a remarkable traveller. We thought we had it tough but a small flip flopped wearing Indian was cycling a rickshaw along the same route. Weighed down with empty plastic bottles, it would have been rude not to have given him a push so we dutifully obliged. After 300km we had a remarkable change in road, flat. With a tailwind, tarmac (previously washboard) and gently downhill the 30km along the Moray Flats was a joy as we screamed along forgetting about pushing those pedals. An indistinct right turn across the sand led us to the camp for the night and even here on a Saturday night, the disco music lulled us to sleep.
Tso Kar to Rumptse
We could see a tarmac strip, half a kilometre from the campsite, getting there was a different matter. I went right and found it quickly, others chose left and I could see them down below traversing the sandy tracks heading for Debring. Re-united over a chai, we steeled ourselves for the final and highest climb of the trip over the Tanglang La. Tarmacced throughout it wound its way around an enormous valley climbing higher and higher. Over 5000 metres and the air felt really thin requiring frequent stops to catch breath, but everyone made it to the top where a small dhaba at the top did a roaring trade in Ginger and Lemon tea. Pictures taken we descended towards Rumptse and into its fertile valley where the goats and barley fields waved in the gentle breeze.
Rumptse to Leh
Harvest time. As we left the tents for the last time, it seemed that the whole village was out cutting the barley from all the small patches alongside the road. All done by hand, sheaves were tied together and stacked or loaded into trucks. The road continued to descend passing huge Stupas dotted through the landscape and a final glorious valley of towering mountains either side led to to Upshi, the largest settlement we had seen for some time. Close to Tibet, Pakisthan and Kashmir, Ladakh is on the frontline for border tension. Enormous swathes on roadside and land beyond were taken up with military barracks with their inspirational slogans painted on their gates announcing how fierce the residents were. Thikse monestary appeared on the right and we climbed the steps to the top admiring both views and inner temples.The final 6km were a climb into Leh, giving a brief reminder of what we had travelled on this remarkable road.