1500 km to School – Cycling the highest motorable road on earth.

About the post: Read about a  mountain biking journey of 1500 km across the highest motorable road on earth and cycling some of the highest mountain passes above 4000m. The riders raised 2500 dollars through a crowdfunding campaign to build a playschool for kids in Delhi(India).  

A cycling journey in the Himalayas to raise funds for the education of unprivileged kids and finding self.  

When you have a new hobby, you find a whole new world waiting for you to be explored. When I took up cycling (again – after school), I came to know about bikepacking. I learned about people who are exploring the world while riding and living on their bicycles. I have hooked already. I started dreaming of cycling long distances, living off from my backpack and exploring different places. I was looking for adventures that will completely throw me out of my comfort zone and make me learn something which was alien to my world view. 

I wanted to feel my nerves, anxiety, frustration, and discomfort. And in the process, learn to feel more and think more. An adventure you are doing for the journey and not for the destination. Where the outcome is uncertain but the event to attempt was rewarding.

In February 2016, I got a call from my friend and ex-flatmate from Bombay, Jitender Rawat. He asked me to join a Mountain biking expedition. The Expedition was to cycle 1500 km from  Manali to Leh to Jammu, crossing what is considered by many as the highest motorable road on earth. Well, this sounds crazy, but in all my sarcasm and seriousness, i said “Hell yeah” in my crazy tone. 

The Road to Leh (Ladakh) opens in May. I had enough time to prepare. I would wake up at 4:30 AM and go for my long rides. I clocked 1000 km in 15 days on the toughest hill nearby. Whether I was prepared for this ride or not, the time had all the answers.

I arrived in Delhi in May and I was hot as a melting pot. I cycled with all my gear to the bus stop and before we could realize we were hills. The bus from Delhi was running late. We stopped at the mandi in Himachal Pradesh to have tea. We could see tall coniferous trees and green hills as we moved closer to Manali. It was raining heavily in Manali and it was already afternoon. We collected all our gears and took shelter in a nearby eatery. We later moved to a nearby hotel.

It was sunny the next day. We roamed around the crowded mall road of Manali to do some last-minute purchases. The evening was spent setting up our bikepacking setup. This was our first bikepacking expedition. We did not have any fancy gears. We had the most basic setup we could afford. But we were high on enthusiasm ready to take up any challenge thrown at us.

The Journey

It’s 5:30 AM in the morning and we had already hit the road and burned rubber. Today, we wanted to reach Marhi, a 50 km ride and elevation gain of 2000 meters. This is our first encounter with the altitude of the Himalayas as cyclists. The climb to Kothi, our first stop, was gradual. In the first few km, my lungs felt stuffed. I stopped my bike at a turn and out of the blue, two taxes had locked horns on the road. Something unexpected happened. Oxes, as they fought rammed my bike on the sideways. Yes, you read it right. I couldn’t do anything but to just watch. To my horror, I thought my expedition was over. When the bulls subsided, I rushed to check my bike. The pannier was loose and one of the screws was missing. I discussed this with Jitender and he said we need to go back to Manali and replace that missing screw. We were already 15 km away from Manali. I rushed back to Manali to get that one silly screw as our expedition solely relied on the bikes. We could only reach Kothi that day. 

The next day we were determined to cover the lost distance and cross the mighty Rohtang Pass. The task was daunting and we were up for it. Rohtang in literal terms means “A pile of corpses”. It’s a steep up climb of 25 km from Marhi, a small village on the foothills of Rohtang pass. After a small stop-over at marhi for lunch, we started the climb and as we moved ahead, mist reduced visibility and the road dissolved into sludge. With your super heavy set up and basic bikes, the climb was Herculean. We Pushed our bikes to the top and it took us more than three hours to reach the top. It was my first mountain pass climb on a bicycle. Thank you legs! I said to myself. I saw a horde of tourists on the Rohtang top clicking pictures on the ice. We biked forward as we had a long way to go. 

Downhill on a bike is like a roller coaster ride, like a rocket. Jitender was ahead of me and I was a little jittery, as the strong wind blew below the pass. The topography started to change dramatically. Mountains in its sun-drenched beauty became taller. We came across beautiful remote villages hidden in the valleys. Green vegetation was replaced by arid vegetation. Endless blue skies and open roads became our constant companion in the journey. We raced past the downhills and muscled through the uphills. 

It was day three of our expedition and we had started late. I could sense,  Jitender did not feel alright that day. We were nearing a zing-zing bar. The target was to cross Baralacha-la pass which was at the height of  4890 meters. We had a long way to go. We stopped at a Dhaba in the afternoon to assess the situation. Since he was not feeling good, we decided not to proceed forward and call it a day. After a modest meal, we decided to rest and preserve our energy for the next day. We were the only two in the dinner. Later, two we met two motorcyclists from Mexico who were on their journey back to Manali. It started to drizzle and it was freezing. We are having a nice conversation about our life and times and Che-Guevara. Suddenly, many tourists started to pour in. We were informed that there was a landslide sometime back before the Baralacha-la pass and the Manali-leh highway is blocked now. Well, what were the odds of that? Soon, more than 200 people occupied the dinner, as everybody was stuck and they had nowhere to go. The Dhaba was made to accommodate thirty people. The Nepali owner was not ready for this, neither logistically nor mentally. He was a young boy in his early twenties and was all over the place. As the night took over, the Dhaba was overcrowded. We could not see “Dai” (Brother)the young owner of the Dhaba serving and helping so many people alone. So, we started helping him. We managed to help him cook food for almost 200 people. We made chai and had discussions. People from different countries were stuck in the middle of nowhere. They sang songs, cracked jokes. Thanks to the Indian army, the landslide was cleared, the next day.  

It was raining the next day and we had a pass to cross. We waited until the afternoon. We started when the rain stopped, we started to climb the Baralacha-la pass. It was a steep climb and we were slow. Because of the mist, the visibility was low. We slogged our way to the pass. By the time, we crossed the pass, it was already getting dark. It was uncannily scary for me. But we managed to reach Sarchu in the dark. We were soaked head to toe. 

The most challenging part of the journey began now. The Road began to rise and the normal altitude was more than four thousand meters. In the coming four days, we crossed three mountain passes namely Nakheel-la (4769 m), Lachungla-la (4270 m) and the highest pass on Manali – leh highway – Tangla-la pass (5328 m).

It was all a long slog at an ungodly attitude. The mountains and the road sucked all our energy and each time it was a spell of tiring work and we had to struggle to reach the summit. The road was weather-beaten and we somehow bunny-hopped potholes to save our backs. The atmosphere was thin and I felt I was breathing through a straw. I was chased by ranger dogs, The descent after each pass got over early. The highs of the mountains were really but lows were not really low. The landscape was something I had not seen before. 

On our eight-day, we reached Karu, forty km away from the leh town. We camped and spent the next day witnessing the Hemis festival at the monastery. We were completely tanned, out of energy. The expedition had just begun.

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