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Cycling Manali to Leh

Jen and Reg's Winter Adventure

Reg and Jen recently cycled from Manali to Leh in the Indian Himalayas. This high alpine desert road is only open for about 4 months each year (June to September).  It was an amazing journey, if hard cycling. We have had a lot of interest in this cycling adventure and below have answered some of the common questions we have been asked.

Why cycle the Manali to Leh road?

The Himalayan route from Manali to Leh is in north-western India. With passes over 5000m it is classed as the highest highway in the world and often called the ultimate two-wheeled adventure -  how could we resist! Yes, we were gasping for breath many times, but the scenery was spectacular and transformed itself many times. We couldn’t imagine a better way to experience this landscape than by going slowly on a bike (pretty much like exploring on sea kayak but on land).

We rode independently (meaning we had to carry all our gear on the bike with us – about 15kg each) with another couple and took seven days cycling plus one rest day to ride the approximately 500km.

Was it hard climbing to over 5000m?

Possibly not has hard as you think as the roads have gradual gradient, but you still to have to cycle up those hills! We rode between 50km and 70km each day, and on average we climbed approximately 1000m, with the most climbing in a day 1600m and the least 700m. Then there is altitude which makes everything harder, including trying to drink while riding. We had to stop cycling and drink as we were gasping for air so much!

Traffic was not too much of an issue on this route. There are a few trucks and army convoys making their way across the passes, but they also have to go slow on the uphills. The army convoys were huge and we met them on the road daily with what seemed like over 50 trucks. It was best to stop and let them go by – we would take any excuse to rest.

Did you enjoy all those Indian curries and did they cause any issues?!

Curries in the towns were amazing, if a little hot for Jen at times. But as we were travelling remotely on a road that is only open for a few months a year, we ate mostly at “parachute tents”, which are a bit like temporary truck stops, and Dhal Bhat (rice and lentils) was usually the only option. This got monotonous very quickly, but as we needed lots of energy we had to force ourselves to eat, and eat a lot, to get up the next pass. Luckily the parachute tents also sold chocolate!

The parachute tents all appeared hygienic, had hand washing areas and we had no illness problems at all while cycling. However, we finished cycling in the popular tourist town of Leh and very excitedly devoured a range of different curries and those yummy deep fried sweets. Unfortunately, after the first day here Jen and our friend Meg got sick for 3 days after one of our meals. Reg and Jase continued on their eating mission and managed to taste test many delights.

What were the highlights?

There were so many highlights of this trip, spectacular landscape of mountains, gorges and rivers that transformed themselves almost every day, and the sense of achievement cycling over 5 passes including the Taglang La at 5360m above sea level and the Gata Loops (21 hairpin bends climbing to 4800m). We also enjoyed the Moray Plains, one of the highest and coldest deserts in the world with snow capped peaks either side, which also provided an easier few kms of cycling along a flat road with a tail wind.

One of the real surprises, and a highlight, was how friendly the people were. Always smiling and helpful, and never seeming to try and rip us off. We checked with locals at times and we were paying the same price as they were. It was hard to believe this was really India, until that truck came up behind us beeping the horn!

Would you do it again?

Reg is not so sure, and is keen to stay at sea level in the future (have a laugh at him in this video enjoying altitude). Jen though would definitely do it again, although would look at doing an organised tour which would take a lot of time out of the pre-trip planning, travelling with bikes and having to carry all the gear but most of all would offer a variety of food options.

If you want further information about cycling Manali to Leh, check out this article in Australian Geographic by Andrew Bain: The high way to Leh: Himalayan journey

September 2018