With four passes over 4900 m and an average elevation above 4000 m, the Manali-Leh Highway is one of the highest motorable roads in the world. Generally open only during the summer months, its spectacular landscapes have become rather legendary within the cycle touring community. Having left Leh two weeks earlier and cycled to Kargil then through the Suru and Zanskar valleys, I had now joined the Highway in Jispa. It was time to complete the circle and ride this epic road back to Leh.
Jispa – Sarchu
The highlights of my day off in Jispa are without a doubt the hot showers at the Ibex hotel. My first ones since leaving Leh two weeks earlier. Closely followed by the delicious banana pancakes served at the hotel’s restaurant.
I wake up early the next day and am packed and ready to go by seven. Breakfast is slightly late, but the bread omelette we are served is delicious. Shame they are so small, I could probably eat five of them.
It is then time to say goodbye to Ivo and Brigitt. They are heading south towards the Rotang La pass and then into the Spiti Valley. They have been great travel companions and looked after me when I was at my lowest. I shall certainly miss them!
I leave Jispa and head north back towards the police checkpoint in Darcha. My details get written down for the second time in less than two days in a book which no-one will probably ever open again once it’s full. Before I can start the long climb towards Baralacha La I have to wait at least ten minutes for for a convoy of army trucks to cross the bridge over the Jankar River.
At the end of the switchbacks and shortly after the Zanskar Sumdo turn-off, where I had joined the Manali-Leh Highway two days earlier, I bump into Eric and Olivia. They are from Austin, Texas, and are bikepacking around the world. Having come from Leh, they are unfortunately heading in the opposite direction, so our encounter is brief.
By midday and after four hours of cycling I have covered a skimpy thirty kilometers. The climb since leaving Darcha has been relentless, just up up up and up. At least the gradient is gentle and the scenery great. I have lunch in one of the parachute tents and rest for half an hour on one of the beds used by truck drivers at night.
The weather is unstable, but luckily the wind blows in the right direction, that is to say not in my face. Whenever the sun disappears behind the clouds the temperature drops by at least five degrees, and the higher I get the colder it feels. Eventually I reach the top of Baralacha La, 4918 m above sea level, but the view up here is rather disappointing and i’m freezing, so I put some warm layers on and start the descent towards Bharatpur. Even though I hardly saw anyone on my way up, on the way down I pass at least twenty motorbikes in the span of twenty minutes. The smooth tarmac road suddenly disappear, replaced by deep potholes and huge loose pebbles that ruin my downhill fun. As I progress the clouds start dissipating and the sun is soon casting its warm evening light on the surrounding mountains. The landscape around me is simply stunning and I have to stop every five minutes for photos.
I reach Sarchu just as the sun dips behind the western peaks. There are several camps bordering the road and I choose the first one I see on the left. The manager, who has been running the place for twenty-eight summers in a row now, seems nice and interested in my trip. I ask if I can pitch my tent somewhere on the camp grounds, promising that I’ll buy dinner and breakfast, and he agrees.
I set up my tent, change into some warm clothes and head into the dinner tent as they turn the power generator on. The friendly cook brings me a large portion of rice and dal, which I devour while watching India news on a small TV. It looks like Wawrinka beat Djokovic in the US Open final. I look around around me, searching for someone to discuss this fascinating piece of news with, but it seems I am the only guest in the camp tonight…
Sarchu – Whisky Nalah
While I wait for breakfast the next morning I notice that one of my panniers is broken. Luckily I brought some spare screws with me and manage to patch it up before my porridge arrives. As soon as I set off around eight I notice that something isn’t quite right with me and that today is going to be a tough one: my legs feel like jelly, I am out of breath and my heart is racing.
After three kilometres I spot another cyclist on a fully loaded bike coming in the opposite direction. His name is Ivan, a Spaniard on a month holiday just like me. Interestingly enough he tells me that he began his trip in Srinagar, the city in Kashmir where Ant, Nico and I were supposed to start before we changed our mind. When I ask him if he ran into any problems due to the state of emergency imposed by the Indian army, he tells me that he was staying outside the city center and couldn’t really tell that anything particular was going on.
After the village of Sarchu a light wind pushes along the Tsarap River on a long straight road that reminds me of the Pamir Highway. Once again the scenery looks stunning in the morning light. If I continue taking so many photo-breaks I will never arrive back in Leh in time for my return flight.
The leisurely ride comes to an end once I reach the bottom of the Gata Loops. A sign informs me that there are twenty-one switchbacks in total, so I decide to take a break every seven. During the first part of the climb I have the road almost to myself and my legs feel good. However after my first break I encounter a military convoy swirling down the road. Some trucks barely give me any space as they pass me, forcing me to come off the road. Even worse are the black and disgusting exhaust fumes that their engine spew in my face. As soon as I think I’ve finally passed the last one, another truck comes rumbling around the next bend. By the time I take my second break I am in a despicable mood. Luckily the traffic thins out a bit during the third and last part of the loops, but by this point my legs are slowly running out of steam. Ten kilometres after the last loop and after another mood-killing encounter with an army convoy, I reach the top of Nakee La (4808 m) with nothing left in the tank.
From here a short descent takes me to the Whisky Nalah parachute tents. As I arrive in the tiny settlement I notice three bicycles parked outside one of the tents. I enter the dabha to investigate but the owners of the bikes are nowhere to be seen. Oh well, I might as well use the opportunity to order some warm food. Afterall, it is three in the afternoon and I haven’t had a proper lunch yet. While waiting for the friendly old lady to make chapatis and fry some eggs, I consider my options: I had planned to cycle a bit further today, at least over Lachulung La. The 5077m pass is just eight kilometres away, I can almost see it from outside the tent. It shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half to get to the top. On the other hand I am cold and tired and it’ll be dark pretty soon. Shall I carry on? Or spend the night here? Before I make a decision I resolve to find the other cyclists. The lady tells me they are sleeping in the adjacent tent. Upon entering I find them resting on the makeshift beds spread across the floor. They introduce themselves as Jorge, Santi and Josep, three Spaniards from Barcelona on a cycling trip from Manali to Leh. We chat for a while and before I know it I am dozing off on one of the beds. There’s no way I am getting back on the bike today, I tell myself. The decision wasn’t so hard to make after all. Let’s just hope I have more energy tomorrow.
Whisky Nalah – Tso Kar
The night was cold. One of the water bottles that I left outside on my bicycle started freezing. I have breakfast with the Spaniards and we set off together around 7h30. No time to warm up, the climb to Lachulung La starts pretty much directly outside the tent. My legs still feel wobbly, but stronger than yesterday. I think stopping at Whisky Nalah was a good call. Luckily the road gradient remains relatively gentle throughout the ascent and by 9h00 we have reached the top of the pass, my second one above 5000 m after Shingo La. We take some celebratory photos together, then put some warm clothes on and start the downhill towards Pang.
Once again the condition of the road deteriorates as soon as we have the opportunity to gather some speed. The potholes and loose gravel mean we have to stay alert and keep pressing on the brakes. On the plus side it means we get more time to admire the arid and barren rock formations flanking the road. Deeper inside the valley the traffic becomes denser and every truck that overtakes us kicks a thick cloud of dust in the air, bringing my eyes to tears. Shortly before Pang the valley suddenly opens up, first revealing the much photographed arch of Kangla Jot and then further down a cluster of remarkable-looking spikes protruding from the side of the mountain.
I join the Spaniards for lunch at a table outside a little restaurant in Pang. It’s too cold in the shade but too warm in the sun. We choose the sun. We hop back on our bikes with full stomachs, ready to tackle the last difficulty of the day: five long switchbacks which will get us onto the Morei Plains, a forty kilometres long plateau stretching from Pang to Debring. As usual my legs ache at the beginning of the climb but as usual the pain disappears once I get into a steady rhythm. Two-thirds of the way up I manage to catch the back of a slow passing lorry and let it take me almost to the top.
The view awaiting me once on the Morei Plains couldn’t be more different to what we experienced in the morning. To my right the Sumkhel Lungpa River cuts deep into the plateau, before curving to the south and disappearing behind mountains. The flanks of the mighty canyon feature some incredible natural sand or rock formations. Ahead of me the road seems to stretch indefinitely across the plains, bringing flashbacks of the Pamir Highway once again. I set off on the flat highway, taking in as much of the majestic scenery as I can. The wind is blowing strongly in my back and for the first time since leaving Leh I am averaging more than twenty kilometres per hour!
Jorge, Santi and Josep eventually catch up with me. We cycle together for a bit but I cannot keep up with them and soon I am left trailing behind. I join them at the Tso Kar turn-off, where they are waiting for me. This is where we part ways, since I plan to camp on the shores of the lake whereas they will stay on the Highway and spend the night in Debring.
I had been warned by other cyclists that the road to Tsor Kar would be hard and tiring to ride, especially at the end of a long day on the saddle. But other than the odd deep sand patches, I find the dirt track to be in a very good condition.
The remote landscape looks spectacular in the late afternoon sun. The crunching sound of the sand underneath my tires is the only noise disturbing the quietness of this place. I follow the track towards the most western point of the lake and all I can see at first as I gaze into the distance are what seem like vast white salt plains. Is there even any water in this lake? Or has it completely dried out? Suddenly Tso Kar appears in front of my eyes, reflecting the blue sky and orange mountains like a polished mirror. It is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. The track hugs the shore, so close that I can cycle right to the edge of the water. I drop my bike on the crusty white ground and spend the evening mesmerized by the different colourful stages which the scenery around me goes through during those magical last hours of daylight. I cannot fathom the grandness and sheer beauty of this place. It is truly wonderful.
I manage to wrench myself away from the hypnotic scenery and decide to set up my tent before this side of the lake falls in the shade of the mountains behind me. As I cook dinner in the doorway of my tent I spot two rapidly moving dots in the distance. Their size and speed suggest two motorbikes. I had messaged Nico and Ant back in Keylong to let them know that I would aim to camp here on this particular night. Could it be them? As the first bike reaches the edge of the lake I recognise Nicolas’ blue jacket. I can hardly believe that they have found me, a tiny dot on the shores of this vast lake. “Great, you got my message!” I tell Nico as I give him a big man-hug. “What message?” he replies. It turns out they had bumped into Jorge, Santi and Josep after I’d left them at the turn off and had been told that I had made my way to the lake. They then followed what they’d hoped where my tire tracks and eventually found me, just before nightfall. What are the chances? I feel delighted to see them. We spend the rest of the evening exchanging stories about what we have done and seen since we last saw each other in Padum. Before going to bed and hiding from the bitterly cold wind in our sleeping bags we make sure to take some photos of the stunning moonlit scenery.