Cycling from Manali to Khardung la was on Sahaj Parikh’s bucket list for a while. He was working with First Pilgrim and happened to hear stories from people who went there and came back transformed. Their voice would change and their eyes would sparkle, in an almost mystical fashion, as they spoke about their experiences. He needed to know what it was that provoked such emotions. There was only one way to find out. And he did that!
The sky was clear so they quickly warmed up. First two days were going to be fully uphill till they cross their first pass — Rohtang. Things kept getting smoother as they put kilometers behind them. The roar of Beas kept getting fainter, and buildings became fewer and farther in between.
From Kothi, they got some food packed and reached Gulaba just before dark. They pitched their tent in the campsite of Nepali construction-workers. The tent was the last towards the valley, next to a solitary tree, overlooking the lush green Kullu valley and the cloud-covered mountains that surrounded it.
The next day was not a sunny one. At Marhi they were already surrounded by clouds, so they didn’t get to stop too long for lunch. In a couple of kilometers, it started to rain. Fortunately, it was a Tuesday. So, the pass was closed for snowball-flinging tourists. The absence of traffic, however, didn’t make it any less tiring.
The next town, Khoksar was 20 km away and the road kept getting worse with every turn of the wheel. Sahaj’s teeth were chattering because of the rough road and the cold. But stopping was just not an option now. Soon enough, he reached Khoksar, having cycled over his first ever mountain pass.
They went from Khoksar to Sissu, found a homestay and left for Keylong the following morning. The road was fine in the beginning but very soon it became rough and dusty. At Tandi, the rough stretch ended and the road went up along the Bhaga river.
At Keylong, after having an amazing thali at Jammu Dhaba for lunch, they decided to hike to Khardang gompa, on the other side of the river. After visiting the temple, they left before sunset and had dinner accompanied by a bottle of chhang at a nameless local Dhaba.
After Keylong the road kept going up and vegetation got thinner. Barren mountains were not uncommon now and there were stretches of rocky-dusty terrain which would be impossible to find in the Kullu valley.
A signboard saying “Check your brakes” lifted Sahaj’s spirits. The climb was over for the day and it was a steep downhill to Jispa now. The road was along the river again and the valley was wide.
After two days of smooth sailing, testing times awaited them. Zingzingbar was 35 km uphill and at a higher altitude than Rohtang. And the milestones were wrong. The Z-Z bar they knew about was a construction site without food or a place to camp. The real Z-Z bar was a long, tiring, windy and cold 7 km uphill. And it was also getting dark. Their ignorance had cost them a lot of time and hence daylight and warmth. However, there was only one way to go and that was onward. It took them almost an hour and a half to reach the people-friendly Z-Z bar where they crashed in a huge tent with beds, Maggi, and rajma-chawal.
The next day was the passing day. To beat bad weather, they started early. Sahaj had no idea how far he had come or how far he had yet to go. He kept pedaling, inching towards the icy peaks that now appeared to be much closer.
Somebody had warned them about the two beautiful lakes that they would encounter on the climb. Deepak Taal was small and Suraj Taal was the bigger. Both lakes amused them with the beauty. Half a circumference away, Baralacha La waited.
Nakee La — Lachung La
Post-Baralacha-La terrain was strange — almost post-apocalyptic. The sun had acquired a piercing intensity. They didn’t want to stop at Bharatpur for long. Sarchu was 30km away. The steep part of the downhill was bad but about 20km before Sarchu there was a sudden transformation in the surroundings.
They kept going and the landscape stretched on till they reached Sarchu and found a lady who would give them food and space to pitch tents in her backyard. They had entered Ladakh.
The next day was another passing day. The first twenty-odd kilometers were through rolling terrain before they reached the foot of Gata loops. These twenty-one part-dirt-part-tar bends stacked vertically stood looked down upon them as they started the climb for Nakee La. Sahaj lost count of the loops after 12 or 14 as they kept getting longer. But there were no signs of the pass, even after the loop was over. Turned out the pass was another 6 kilometers uphill. It took him two hours to haul a tired body to the pass.
The night was cold and a cloudy morning followed. Lachung La was just 5 km uphill but they had to start soon to avoid bad weather. Just one more pass now stood between them and Leh.
A long downhill followed the twin passes. The terrain was still rocky and dry and brown. Pang was the first town on the other side. The sight of a small hill next to the town, however, wiped the smiles off their faces. There was no choice but to get on with it. One pedal at a time.
A strong headwind made the climb seem longer than it was. On the other side, the Moray plains spanned from Pang till the foothills of Tanglang La. Vast green flat land stretched till a horizon of grass covered mountains. It was almost evening by the time they reached Debring.
The next morning was cloudy and it did not get warmer as Sahaj waited. So, they made the move. 15 kilometers between them and the pass. It started to drizzle near the top and the thin air kept making it harder to go on. But inching ahead, he made it and rewarded himself with some hot soupy Wai-Wai.
The other side of Tanglang La was a cyclist’s paradise. The road was smooth and the views were grand. It was time to forget about pedals and brakes and let the bike fly. It was time to ride away from the icy peaks and into the valley. Rumtse, the next village was all downhill from there. The stream flowing from Tanglang la kept getting wider as they approached the town. The brown and white colors started to disappear and soon they were in the company of patches of green grass and peacefully grazing cows.
Right before evening, they started the stretch till Upshi. In those few kilometers in the twilight hours, Sahaj was struck by the magnificence of Ladakh. Because of the limited daylight, they kept going without stopping. It was already dark when they reached Upshi.
Upshi was touted as the “only major town after Keylong” where they have electricity and phone signal and such luxuries. They encountered several angry hosts shouting at disgruntled travelers, and dark alleyways going over shops in the market leading to shady buildings before finding a place to sleep.
Next morning, they took a leisurely walk on the banks of Sindhu and left after lunch. It was more of smooth sailing till Karu, the army town from where they took a detour towards Hemis, the largest monastery in Ladakh.
Next day, after breakfast, the last stretch of the journey had begun. The hard part was over. The road to Leh was mostly flat. They reached Leh late in the evening and, with slight difficulty, found their hotel where they were welcomed by cold beer, warm food and boiling hot water.
They spent a couple of days relaxing in Leh, roaming around the city, reminiscing about the journey, recounting their experiences. But one final challenge remained. Khardung La, the highest motorable road in India, was yet to be conquered.
It was going to be very hard. 40 kilometers of steady uphill. Roughly 2000 meters of altitude gain. And there was no place to spend a night on the way. And just one place where food could be found. This stretch had to be finished in one go. Starting at 7 in the morning was definitely a smart move.
The first 10-or-so kilometers were smooth, but then the unending incline started to make Sahaj think. A conquest of Khardung la was not going to get him to a new destination. He would reach the top, and after a few minutes, he would head back towards Leh. It was almost like ticking an item off the bucket list. With every passing minute, the going got tougher and the questions intensified.
“I kept telling myself to hang on till South Pullu, the check post at 25km. It was 2 PM when I reached South Pullu. After a bit of bargaining, I convinced myself to keep going. Yes, the last 15 kilometers were probably going to take another 3 hours. But on the other hand, it was not possible for me to get any more tired. It made more sense to finish this ascent today rather than feeling regretful later. So, I went on and took the opportunity to recount my experiences over the past two weeks.”
At 5 pm he reached the pass. The road was so bad. Since he had to walk the last 6-7 kilometers, he became exhausted. But he did it. After a few minutes, Sahaj started the downward journey. 10 hours going up and barely 2 hours going down. It was dark by the time he reached the hotel, where the others were waiting, with hot food and cold beer.
“Situations where turning around is not an option enlarge one’s comfort zone. It feels great to be on the other side. And it becomes a source of motivation at the next tricky situation.
And there is peace. Silence. Tranquility. I would hear the movement of thoughts through my head. And in between a chirping bird or a running stream. I would have long conversations with myself, sometimes without any words at all. Or, I would hum a phrase of Yaman or Bhoopali or a bandish in Vrindavani Sarang. I would look around, at the magnificent peaks and beautiful valleys. And, I would smile.”