My cycling tour from Manali to Khardungla

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…….. And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self“- Søren Kierkegaard

I’m not a professional cyclist – just a hobby cyclist who took cycling as a leisure pursuit three years back. Over last couple of years, cycling has become a passion and a way of life for me.

Four months back when I signed up for this 11 days bicycle ride in the Himalayan valley from Manali to Khardungla, it was not just for exploring the fascinating land of Himachal and Ladak. For me it was for discovering life, pushing myself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It was for testing the strength of my grit, belief and purpose. It was about making my trip meaningful by supporting the medical needs of special children. It was for getting inspired and hopefully being an inspiration. Basically, it was much more than cycling.

I am happy to share with you an everyday account of this amazing cycling trip through one of the toughest terrains in the world, taking me to the world’s highest motorable roads – Taglang La and Khardung La.

route-profile

Day 0 – August 9, 2014

Manali

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We reached Manali early morning at 2 am and were welcomed by heavy shower that continued the whole night. We had taken our flight from Bangalore to Chandigarh and then a tempo traveler to Manali. The ride from Chandigarh to Manali was very bumpy and our driver maneuvered the bus on the curvy roads at a fast speed throwing us from our seat in all direction. I had terrible travel sickness by the time I reached Manali. I regret I did not take the Volvo bus. I rested the entire morning, mostly staying in the hotel. The view from the hotel balcony, Mountain Trail, is very beautiful. I could see snow clad mountains covered in clouds and the scene of the hills changing every minute as the clouds moved, exposing new parts of the hills. It was like watching a huge movie screen with so much dramatic changes in the scenery and excellent light effects of sun through the clouds. I could see many waterfalls, dense forest of deodar trees, birds, and valleys. The hotel has few apples trees and it was a delight plucking fresh juicy apples from the trees and eating them.

DSC_0022I got my cycle assembled and in the evening took a walk to the market and Hidimba Temple. From the Manali market I could see Rohtang pass. In next two days, I will be on top of this magnificent mountain.  Our ride is starting tomorrow. There are  15 riders in total – 14 are from Bangalore who I got introduced to in Bangalore. Some of us also started our practice rides few months back. There is a French rider who will join us tomorrow.

Day 1 – August 10, 2014

photo 1Manali to Marhi

We started our ride from Manali and today we will be camping at Marhi, 38 km from Manali. The entire route is very scenic – beautiful snow clad hills, streams, waterfalls, valleys. The road is mostly in a good condition with few bad patches and construction. It is a uphill ride and the total climb today is of around 1300 meters. No one complained about the gradient. We are all prepared for the serious climbs that we are going to encounter in the coming days, so this was a good start.

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Fred, our French rider had a bad start with a flat tyre and the screw of the gear cassette coming off. Our mechanic, Ringin, could get it fixed and Fred could continue his ride. We stopped for lunch at Gulaba and proceeded further. All of us reached Marhi by around 3 pm with many stop-overs to take beautiful pictures. Our camp site at Marhi is really beautiful. This is our first night in a tent and there is a general excitement about all the adventure that is going to unfold and new friends we are going to make.

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Our real hero of the day was this dog from Manali. She ran with us 38 km uphill to Marhi and just wanted to hang out with us!! We named her Patchy. She is our lucky mascot and our inspiration!! Who knows – she might just come with us till Leh!! We organized a special dinner for Patchy and a warm resting place!!

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There was a sudden change in weather in the evening and the entire hill got covered by thick blanket of clouds. It started drizzling by 6.30 pm. We had an early dinner and everyone got into their tents and sleeping bags. My roommate (or call it tent-mate!) is Anil Bhambhani. We have been practicing for this tour together for last 4 months and have by now become good friends.  He is an air force pilot and a great buddy to hang out with. We have many things in common – both of us are very determined, like things to be organized, well planned and also we like going to bed at 9 pm and getting up at 5 am. These similarities are very crucial for an amiable co-existence in the small tent and our ride together for next 11 days  :-)!! We also relied on each other to strategize and motivate each other for all our difficult rides.

Day 2 – August 11, 2014

Marhi to Sissu

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We started our ride from Marhi to climb Rohtang Pass. It is a 18km ride to Rohtang Pass located at 3978 meters. Interestingly Rohtang means “pile of corpses” as many people die trying to cross the pass during cold weather and unpredictable snowstorms.  Thankfully Patchy decided not to join us and stayed back at Marhi! Most part of the pass was covered in ice and low visibility due to heavy fog. This was my first encounter with cold weather. From the top, breathtaking views of the glaciers & snow clad mountains of the Chandrabhaga Range on the other side of the pass was spectacular. The ride down was challenging due to very bad road condition – but the view made the ride enjoyable. Fred taught me few tricks on riding mountain bikes down hill – just letting it fly :-). The ride to Sissu Village alongside of Chandra river was wonderful.  From here on there is a clear evidence of Buddhist culture.

Day 3 – August 12, 2014

Sissu to Jispa

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As per our itinerary, this was supposed to be an easy ride from Sissu to Jispa along the Chandra & Bhaga river of around 60 kms. However it turned out to be a tough one due to bad roads, sudden change in gradients, and hot afternoon. Parts of the road are filled with thick layer of dust and rubbles. The road from Keylong was unexpectedly tough as the road suddenly increased in gradient- and afternoon was very hot. I felt dehydrated and had to take a break under a shrub shade for 30 minutes! It took almost 6 hours to complete this ride.

 

 

 

Day 4 – August 13, 2014

Jispa to Patseo

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Today we ride from Jispa to Patseo. Our route continued along the Bhaga River till Darcha. From Darcha the roads climbed in switch-back turns & gradually leads to Patseo.  Patseo is at the base of Baralachla climbs – the next major milestone on our tour. Enroute was the small yet pristine lake Deepak tal , our stopover for lunch. Today was mostly uphill but not treacherous.DSC00976

 

 

 

 

 

Day 5 – August 14, 2014

Patseo to Brandy Nala

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More than 70km ride today. The strenuous section and high altitude of the trip begins from here. From Patseo the hard climb started and continued for next 30km to Baralacha La, elevation of 16040 feet / 4890 meters. Route passed through beautiful lake of Suraj Tal. A group of motorcyclists were amazed to see me riding a cycle on top of Baralacha La. They applauded me and took some pictures. The views from the pass is amazing.

Road descends from the pass to the plains of Sarchu. The landscape changed completely with no trace of trees. Its only different shades of brown and mind-boggling backdrop. The landscape is awe-inspiring – blue sky, enormous mountains, marvelous contours of the rivers. I stopped at Sarchu military camp to make a phone call home. Our mobile phones do not work in this region till Leh.

We have now entered Jammu & Kashmir state and our camping site is at Brandy Nala. Unfortunately one of my co-riders had altitude sickness at Baralacha La. He could not cycle and needed medical assistance.

 

Day 6 – August 15, 2014

Brandy Nala to Whisky Nala

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It is August 15, India’s Independence Day, and we hoisted the national flag on top of our support vehicle. Our cook, Happy Singh, baked a special cake for the occasion.  Today is an uphill ride covering the famous Ghata Loops and Nakeela Pass and down hill to Whiskly Nala. Ghata loops is a 21 hairpin bends that takes us from 4190 mts to 4630 mts. height. The incline started right next to our camping site at Brandy Nala. There is a story of the ‘Ghost of Ghataloops’, a beggar who can be spotted asking for some water. Luckily none of us spotted the ghost! Nakeela pass is at 15547 feet / 4950 meters after Ghata Loops. It was a proud moment for me holding the national flag at Nakeela Pass and riding with the flag on my bike. Our next camping site is at Whisky Nala  – downhill of Nakeela pass.

Our co-rider who fell ill the previous day got seriously unwell and had to be given oxygen . Our support team shifted him to Leh. He and his brother had to abandon the tour. This dampened the moral of the team. The night started getting extremely cold. It became a ritual to take blessings from ‘Old Monk’ to keep us warm and in high spirit 🙂

 

 

Day 7 – August 16, 2014

Whiskey Nala to Tsokar Lake

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When we woke up in the morning, we were astonished to see our camp site covered in snow!! Our tents, cycles and the entire place is cold and white.

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Today the ride is about 70 km covering Lachulung La, Pang and then go up to cross the Moore  plains.It continued to snow during the morning ride till Lachulung La, at 16616 feet / 5059 meters. I had a terrible cough and slight fever and found the ride very difficult. Yet managed to reach Lachulung La  at a good speed.photo 3

I met a doctor at Pang Military base-camp to make sure that I was all fine. I was very paranoid that I might get altitude sickness. I had hundreds of questions to ask the doctor and my co-rider Gerard, found the entire conversation extremely funny! The doctor checked my oxygen level & it was 90 plus – it gave me a huge confidence. From here, I was riding at a super speed, climbing the last hill and then to Moore plains.

photo 11The last stretch of 35 kms of Moore plains is a flat and a very good road surrounded by deserts and mountains. I was lucky to have tailwind and was able to maintain an average speed of 40 kmph peaking at around 60 kmph occasionally. It was a big relief compared to the early morning snow and difficult uphill ride. Our camp site is 6 kms off road close to Tsokar lake – a very beautiful spot.

I had severe cough, some breathlessness and fever in the morning and am feeling tired. Luckily it is a break day on Day 8 to recoup.

Day 8 – August 17, 2014

Tsokar Lake

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Today is a rest day !! I mostly stayed at our campsite and visited the stupas and nearby village at Tsokar. The rest of the team took a bus ride to the lake and the village. The rest day was a boon – I recovered from fever and body pain. Tomorrow is one of the toughest climb to Taglangla, the second highest motorable road in the world. I had a really good sleep of 10 hours and I’m all set for the long rides in the coming few days.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 9 – August 18, 2014

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Today was the second most difficult ride on our tour to cross Taglangla. Taglangla is at 17582 feet /5359 metres and is claimed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world. The ride of 45 km from Tsokar to Taglangla is extremely difficult as there is literally no road – only rubble. Only the last 4 km to the pass has tar-road. The high altitude and terrible road condition tests you mentally, emotionally and physically. I was persistent and kept riding. It was a great relief to reach on the top. My timing was not bad. There were many motor riders and tourists to take pictures of the sign board. The downhill ride to Rumptse, of 29 kms was rewarding. From here Leh is now less than 100 kms!!

 

 

 

Day 10 – August 19, 2014

 

Rumptse to Leh

photo 13We are now close to the end of this amazing journey. Leh is now less than 90 kms away and my eyes are set on Khardungla! Today is also the last day in the tent… in Leh we move to a proper hotel accommodation. I’m going to miss the cozy tent ! The weather is still cold. My cough syrup bottle was leaking and I left it in a tub of water outside….. and by morning the water was completely frozen!! I’m hoping that Leh weather is goin

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g to be much warmer.

We bid farewell to Happy Singh and his supporting crew of cooks who took wonderful care of us – we were so well fed that I doubt I have gained more weight!! The menu included yummy pizza, pasta, parathas, pooris, mutton, chicken, deserts to name a few…. and I over ate every day!!

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The ride to Leh is great as we saw human habitat, animals and trees after many days. Roadside you find military establishments and beautiful monasteries co-existing. The road is mostly plain except for the last 10 km stretch to Leh which gradually goes up.

DSC01914Leh is very touristy and you find people from across the globe here. I could see the peak of Khardungla from here. Our hotel ‘Dream Ladakh’ is a comfortable place – spacious bed room, hot water shower and toilet – all seemed to be a big luxury compared to our modest living during last 10 days. I’m still thinking of Khardungla and tough ride ahead. Tomorrow is the finale!

 

Day 11 – August 20, 2014

Leh to Khardungla

Khardungla is supposedly the world’s highest motorable road. It is said to be at 5602 meters / 18375 feet. They say it requires strong grit to attempt Khardungla on a cycle – firstly it is at a very high altitude with low oxygen, secondly we are completely tired after 10 days of ride, thirdly – it has the worst road conditions. And it is too tempting to stay back at Leh and enjoy the beer, meet people and have some fun. While some of us were very determined, few decided to stay back at Leh. Fred, Anil, Nagesh and I started the ride at 6.50 am followed by few more riders at 7.30 am.

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It is a steep incline from the word go. We had to keep our pace constant. I made my bike as light as possible – removing all frills, carrying just one bottle of water, no gadgets except for my iphone for pics. It is a 38 km uphill ride and a decent road for first 22 km or so. Then the worst roads started – it is not rubbles but boulders and pits !! I wonder why they even call it motorable!! The last 10 kms or so I had breathlessness and bad cough and I had to take a break every 2-3 km, stop to gasp breath and water. It was a true test of my determination – I knew I will reach there because I knew I am crazy enough to think I CAN!! I had visualized myself standing on top of Khardungla for last four months and this was the moment for me.

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In spite of all odds, I experienced an extraordinary strength that I had never experienced – I was overtaking all the riders from all groups. Last two kms – I literally crawled but finally I was there – at the pinnacle after 5hrs 55 minutes. Fred reached first and then I, followed by Anil, Nagesh and finally Bhanu. Unfortunately others from our group had to pull out as the day got really hot and harsh.

photo 4Once I reached the top, there was a sense of completion and at the same time I was feeling humbled and so grateful to my wife Ripsy, son Rishabh, my family and friends who supported me.

photo 12When I returned, I was really happy to see that through my ride I have raised $1780 towards medical expense of 80 mentally challenged children in the state run orphanage in Bangalore, supported by U&I NGO. The fund raising is still open and you can continue funding this cause –

https://www.globalgiving.org/fundraisers/cycling-for-a-cause/

 

This ride is dedicated to all of you and to the special children whom you supported as part of this ride. I hope this ride also inspires you just the way it did to me – I’m just one of you ….. all our limits are self-imposed…. the truth is there are no limits!

 

Thank you!!

 

Raj Karunakaran is a HR professional and a life and leadership coach. He specializes in organizational development, leadership coaching and business partnering. He currently heads HR for Philips Healthcare  at Philips Innovation Campus, Bangalore.

20 Comments

  • Puja says:

    Raj,
    It seems that you enjoyed every bit of the journey.When i just read from day-1 to day-11,i thought that i was there.You had described everything. I also love adventurous trip like trekking. will work on cycling soon. and most encouraging part of your journey is you had raised money for orphanage children.Keep going….

  • Shylendra says:

    Awesome effort 🙂

  • Mohandas says:

    Nice!!! Thanks for detailed explanations Raj

  • Venky says:

    Truly amazing effort Raj ! The mission must have been so powerful to motivate you do this !!

    Thanks for the elaborate blog – now i have seen some of what you have 🙂

    Great going ..Congratulations ….

  • Anil Trehan says:

    Great Raj, this is truly amazing. Thanks for very nice coverage.

    Regards,
    Anil

  • Manoj AK says:

    Dear Raj,

    Truly Inspirational !!

    Cheers,
    Manoj

  • Srinivas says:

    Hi Raj,
    Great ride and hearty congratulations once again!!!! It should be one of the most memorable events in life…:)

    Regards,
    Srinivas

  • Marjorie says:

    Hi Raj,

    Very impressive!! I have been on some long rides but never on a mountain bike! From your pictures I could see why you had to ride with determination and passion. This was no way a “I am going to ride to Khardungla” today.

    Just a few questions, did you clean your bike after every day’s ride?
    How much did your bike weigh?
    How much water did you carry with you and did you have a support team that followed you for norishment, etc?

    After some long rides (over 2-3 days) I have felt thrilled that I finished and proud that I could do such a ride. It does give one’s self a sense of accomplishment and testing of the spirit.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Raj says:

      Thanks Marjorie! I used Cannondale Trail Six and it weighs around 15 kgs. I cleaned the chains almost every day and oiled the gear and break wires couple of times. Other than this I did not clean the bike much. Usually i carried two bottles of electrolyte water and few energy bars and dry fruits. We had a support vehicle that carried food, extra water, medical supplies and cycle repair kits.

  • Dan R says:

    Simply an amazing ride! Raj, you are a tough grit! Your pictures are fantastic and inspiring to get out and see the world by bike. Cycling at 5600m, wow!

    Dan

  • Srikanta says:

    Superb Raj !!!

    Pics are really nice .. hope you had somuch in ur bucket to share and inspire all of us ..

  • Deepak Shetty says:

    Looks like you had a lot of fun …..very inspirational Raj !!

  • Hitesh says:

    Hi Raj,

    Very inspiring to see your journey in search of merely more than a record but
    all aspects of life.. raising money has been the greatest part of it all .

    you inspired me.

    cheers,
    Hitesh

  • Amit dey says:

    Tough Terrains but good stuff indeed.

    Well done.

    Cheers

  • Pardeep Dalal says:

    Sir

    Thanks for sharing the details in such lucidity.

    I can feel the level of grit and determination required for such a ride… As I had on the same journey last year with my hatchback….. Now your blog really inspired me to ride these unmotrable roads again…. Can you share the details of agencies organising such rides…

    And best part of your journey was simply great… The philanthropy work….

    Thanks

  • Pritam Bhosale says:

    Hi Raj,

    Thanks for sharing this amazing experience. Your determination is very high and you continue to inspire others in work and beyond.
    You Rock ! what’s next !!!

  • Sachin Deshpande says:

    Very motivating story!!! I salute you for the determination and perseverance.
    I also liked the story-telling style.

  • Goutam says:

    You had lot of hard work and fun as well…..keep it up…

    Thanks for sharing the story
    Goutam

  • Somu says:

    Hi Raj,

    Every bit of the description of your trip made me feel I was there ! What a way to narrate the experience ! I just loved it.

  • Ananth says:

    Hi Raj,
    Really awesome! Truly inspirational.
    I’m planning for this ride privately with 4 of my other friends in 2015.
    Just wanted to know if there was any different style of practice which you did before taking the trip? could you please help me with the organization name which conducted this, may be we can join them so that we have support.

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