Bikepacking The Himalayas: A Manali To Leh Bike Trip

Enjoy the best of the Himalayas as I ride from Manali to Leh on a budget mountain bike

The first test of the Manali to Leh bike trip was cycling up the Rohtang Pass, two days out of Manali. Between Jispa and Leh there are three major 5,000m+ passes: Baralacha La, Lachulung La and Tanglang La. Not to mention the fabled Gata Loops. But first I had to get from my front door to Chandigarh…

Join me on my latest adventure as I tackle the Manali to Leh highway on a second-hand mountain bike. This was a high-altitude adventure of the tallest order. Expect thrills, spills and sporadic bouts of AMS as I climb into the clouds of Indian Tibet on an action-packed bike ride across the Himalayas.

chandigarh to leh by bike via manali
Chandigarh to Leh by bike via Manali

A Manali to Leh bike trip

It was five years since I last rode a bicycle across India. My partner felt that as we drew to the end of our two years self-stranded in Goa it would be good to do something fun. A Manali to Leh bike trip fitted the bill nicely.

I’d wanted to visit Ladakh and North-West India for some years. When I was last here, I ran out of visa and had to skip over to Nepal. I nudged the lower reaches of Himachal Pradesh but didn’t quite get as high as I’d have liked.

Starting out from the front door

I set off from our front door in sleepy Mandrem, a small village near the coast of the Arabian Sea. A week was spent hurriedly gathering kit from friends. I purchased a secondhand mountain bike and strapped on my ancient Ortlieb dry bags.

In my haste, I broke every rule in the book. I left before lunch, in the heat of the day, on a journey I needn’t have made. I could quite as easily have put the bike in the car, driven down at my leisure and enjoyed a delicious lunch with my girls. But I didn’t.

Goan cows laze at the side of the road
Goan cows laze at the side of the road

A high-altitude vision quest

Sometime during the week, Charlie had mentioned the words vision quest and they’d hit the mark. I went into autopilot. Plotting longer, more ridiculous routes, adding in unnecessary hardship. I went all out on a mountain adventure. A cheeky skirmish north had become ‘an expedition.’

The parameters surrounding an adventure are generally entirely arbitrary. It didn’t matter if I cycled to the station. It was totally unnecessary. Consequently, I got sunburnt, frazzled my nerves and ate alone in a grimy station dhaba. There were times, around two hours into the journey, when I began to look for a way out.

A passing rickshaw van, a local bus, a cargo-less truck. My mind was overwhelmed by the sensory discomfort. My shorts cut into my buttocks, my backpack was too heavy and I was sweating buckets. I was lucky not to get heatstroke.

Under the bridge downtown

I stopped to refuel under the shade of a bridge. Slowly, my strength came back. It felt as if I was within moments of bonking, but a dense fruit cake, a bunch of bananas and a bottle of Coke restored my blood sugars.

The next few hours were tough, but I made progress and eventually, as the sun went down and the heat died away, I arrived at the station.

bikepacking from mandrem to madgoan was miserable
Bikepacking from Mandrem to Madgoan was miserable

Big train – Goa to Chandigarh

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I lounged in the lower bunk next to the window of the 04559 Kochuveli to Chandigarh. The special train service would cover 3088km over three days. As I prepared for my second night on board, dusk gave way to dark. Only vague silhouettes of nearby trees remained.

I love the enormity of the Indian railway system. It’s the largest employer in India. A job with the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation is a job for life. It employs 1.4 million people, about the same as NHS England.

As this train demonstrated, it was possible to travel the length of the subcontinent in a single journey.

a veg thali served on an indian sleeper train
A veg thali served on an Indian sleeper train

60kph club

I watched the world go by at a leisurely 60kph. After the ‘cutting flints’ of the previous days’ bike journey, I relaxed pretty comprehensively. Every need is taken care of on the railway. There were more opportunities to eat and drink than you could shake a stick at. The dozen or so chai wallas passed by on rotation, every five minutes or so.

Each major stop brought a raft of new food vendors onboard. I ate well. Chicken biriyani with samosas for breakfast, veg thali for lunch and a mixed veg curry for supper. Innumerable cups of tea to wash it down.

In the past, I’d made this same train ride in both directions but never at the tail end of monsoon. The usually dusty brown landscape had been transformed into a lush tropical garden. It’s startling just how quickly vegetation grows during the rains. The variety of species is staggering.

I’d seen more exotic plants and flowers in three months of monsoon than at any other time of the year. Bird of Paradise, fire orchid and Japanese hibiscus were among my favourites.

bikepacking set up for manali to leh bike trip
Bikepacking set up for Manali to Leh bike trip

Chandigarh to Manali to Leh bike trip

On the first afternoon, I covered a modest distance. It wouldn’t set any records or win a race but I travelled from A to B without incident. As soon as I got off the train, I realised I needed new bungees – I snapped one strapping the front bag on.

Then, I wanted to find a hose clip to strengthen the seat post. After that I was hungry. And so it goes… I don’t know how Adrian puts up with me when we ride together.

Anyway, I finally got rolling around 1pm, cruising along the wide boulevard-style streets of Chandigarh. After just 20km I was beginning to nudge up into the hills.

I crossed a road and found myself on the border of Harayana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. I climbed up further still, stopping to speak with a young lad named Kamal. We had a chat about India and my trip.

Full-fat Big India

I explained how Goa is the Diet Coke to Big Indias’ full-fat version. I was very much in Big India now. Life happens in full colour, with no filter.

I was reminded why I love this place. The unexpected, the possible, the variety. I had a bloke ride alongside me tell me that he designed a swimming pool in London. He didn’t say which one.

I felt good on the bike. The weather was perfect. Overcast, not too hot, not too sunny and not a peep of thunderstorms. So, despite my best efforts to dawdle and faff, I made it to Baddi in Himachal where I spend the night, refuelled and prepared for the road ahead.

waterfall in himachal pradesh
Waterfall in Himachal Pradesh

Cycling across Himachal Pradesh

The next day was as challenging as it was rewarding. I chose a tiny little road to start the day. A 35km stretch of quiet back road. Early on, a guy on a moto suggested I turn back on account of the poor condition.

I decided to persevere despite the obvious monsoon damage and the fact that the road was in the midst of reconstruction. I’m glad I did. It was one of the most stunning rides I’ve had in India.

It didn’t stop raining all day, except for two hours after 4pm. The downpour made for treacherous conditions on the mud-strewn surface. It felt a lot like riding singletrack in the forest at winter. Slippy and unpredictable but fun.

Drenched to the bone

I had the road to myself. Hardly any traffic at all passed by. A blessing in many ways since the rear calliper failed early in the day without remedy. I muddled through with just a front brake.

My Rab jacket is less waterproof than it was ten years ago and my Endura lycra shorts have seen better days too, but I bootstrapped this trip with odds and ends at hand. It made for a more immersive experience. Immersive as in drenched to the bone.

Despite the heavy weather, or perhaps because of it, I dug deep to push through for a solid day of cycling. The sunset over the valley felt like a mirage leading me on with the promise of dry clothes, a hot shower and a new dawn.

a landslide blocks the road on my manali to leh bike trip
A landslide blocks the road on my Manali to Leh bike trip

James takes a bus

On day three, I took a bus. The rear calliper was beyond side-of-the-road repair and the nearest shop was in Manali. I was reluctant but knew that to ride 200km+ without a rear brake would be foolish. Happily, I swung into the station at Bilaspur and within an hour I was on the coach north. In hindsight, this was a lucky break on several counts.

The road turned out to be under construction the whole way. It was a shambles of a road. Heavy haulage, tourist buses and impatient motorcyclists battled for every inch of available space. Possible to cycle but not pleasant.

The prospect of gulping down thick black smoke from the trucks and 4x4s was a bleak one.

The route followed the River Beas which was majestic as it glimmered in the sunlight. Far below the roadside madness, basking in the warm glow of an autumn day. It was the highlight of the journey.

a very wet bootstarpped bikepacker in an old Rab jacket in himachal pradesh
Avery wet bootstarpped bikepacker in an old Rab jacket in Himachal Pradesh

A twelve-year-old bike mechanic

As it happened, I also began to feel pretty ill on the bus. Lethargy, headache and mild cough my reward for cycling 80km in the pouring rain the previous day. I took the next day off. I topped up on tasty treats and drank lots of tea to rehydrate.

I did a two-hour session of restorative Wim Hof style breathwork in my bed. It helped to alleviate most of the symptoms. Fingers crossed I’d be right enough for an early start the next day.

I had the rear calliper replaced. A job well done by the local bike shop, Trek India. I felt confident that the second-hand Sunpeed Zero could do the business. I spent most of the day pottering around the mall in the town centre. It was a lovely day for it.

A trekking guide told me that he was keen for international tourism to return. His livelihood pretty much depended on it. A stark reminder of the impact of the pandemic on regular working people.

bikepacking kit is widely available in manali
Bikepacking kit and repairs are widely available in Manali

Manali to Marhi by bike

The sunshine shone brightly through my window, I began the day feeling refreshed, confident that I could commence my bike ride into the high mountains of the Himalayas. I packed up my smattering of things, strapped the bags onto the bike and wheeled slowly out of the hotel.

On the map the route I planned to take looked like a comfortable six to eight hours. A typical day on the bike. What I hadn’t factored in was that a) I was recovering from a cold and b) I was about to ride my bike up the side of a 5,000m mountain.

Tunnel vision

As I began to spin at the pedals in the early morning sun, I made steady progress, stopping to click a photo of the many Border Roads Organisation roadsigns. The elevation was building gradually and the bike moved along easily. I felt sure that I could make the 3,500m mark at Marhi before dark.

I reached the junction for the turning to the Rohtang Pass by lunchtime. At this point, there is a choice to go via the newly constructed Atal tunnel or to take the old road over the Rohtang Pass. I hadn’t travelled the length of the continent to cycle through a very long tunnel.

ascending from manali to marhi up the rohtang pass by bike
Ascending from Manali to Marhi up the Rohtang pass by bike

An Alpine ascent

Immediately, the gradient kicked up sharply. Old roads have a habit of sharing their gnarly side early on. I was shaken but determined. I pushed on, turning the crank slowly, deliberately, inching the bike up the side of the first of a half dozen monumental mountain passes.

I arrived at Marhi well after dark. I was exhausted. There had been a false summit and an erroneous Google map entry showing a hotel some miles lower down the mountainside.

I’d had to push the bike for the last five kilometres which had added several hours onto an already long day. The flu symptoms had returned with a vengeance and I was struggling.

Happily, at the dhaba I met a fellow cyclist making the same journey from Manali to Leh by bicycle. We shared a room for the night and agreed to cycle together the next day.

a worker makes a call on his mobile phone on the road from manali to marhi
A worker makes a call on his mobile phone on the road from Manali to Marhi

Cycling Rohtang La

We started early, just as the sun rose above the lofty snow-covered peaks. A convocation of huge mountain eagles gathered overhead. An auspicious omen for the overland traveller. How far into our journey could the aerie see?

Within just a few strokes of the pedal, my companion for the day spun out of sight. His leaner frame, lighter set up and more full acclimatisation made light work of the early gradients. I pushed on alone, quietly pleased with my solitary pace. It would be days end before I saw Avinash again.

Gradually, I gained elevation, each revolution of the wheels sending man and machine higher. The thin mountain air made the effort doubly hard. I’d ridden at height before but this was different. Back then I was lean and hungry. But that was five years ago. I’d spent too long on the beach. I was soft and it was showing.

bikepacking to the summit of rohtang pass in indian himalayas
Bikepacking to the summit of Rohtang pass in Indian Himalayas

Reaching the summit

Cresting the pass was a chaotic moment. The peace of the climb gave way to an all-Indian commerce circus. Himachal’s most popular day trip certainly drew the crowds. I munched down a bowl of Maggi noodles and a Dairy Milk, washed it down with sweet milky chai and set off for the descent.

Happily, I could still ride a bike downhill pretty fast. I strapped the phone to my handlebars under a bungee, zipped up my jacket and cut loose.

Hurtling down the road into hairpin bends seemingly never loses its thrill. I took BRO at his word to ‘stay alert, stay alive’, as I let gravity take me 1000m of descent in a matter of minutes.

cycling down rohtang pass towards sissu
Cycling down Rohtang pass towards Sissu

Almost cycling from Sissu to Jispa

After the elation of climbing the Rohtang Pass I crashed back to earth with man-flu and mild AMS. I was sick and I hated it. I’d felt pretty good first thing. A quick 22km to Tandi was a decent effort for the early morning stint. However, after breakfast, things started to unravel.

I hopped back on the bike and couldn’t find the energy to move it. I was short of breath within a few minutes, even on flat ground. I struggled on to Keylong, pushing the final 5km. It was a slow, hard slog. Even then, I had to stop every twenty minutes to catch my breath. It was bleak.

An organised tour offered a ride to Jispa in the support vehicle. I accepted and threw the bike on the back. I sat snivelling and gasping in the passenger seat while the group spun along the 21km to the camp. I’d never felt so frustrated.

Just walking up the steps of the homestay to my room had me breathless. I even had to speak more slowly during conversations in an effort to conserve energy.

border roads organistion have legendary sense of humour - road sign on the route from manalie to leh by bike
Border Roads Organistion have legendary sense of humour – road sign on the route from Manali to Leh by bike

A rest day to recuperate

I decided to take a rest day to see if the extra night would help me to acclimatise. I was just five days into my Manali to Leh bike trip and I was feeling exhausted. The effects of acute mountain sickness had kicked in pretty sharply and had hastened the flu symptoms to drain me of any energy I had. It was a bleak prognosis.

Despite my obvious disappointment, the scenery was spectacular. I spent the day off resting in my room with a view over the river and mountainside. It was a small concession to a reluctant rest day.

The next day I felt much better. A good nights sleep and a couple of square meals put a spring back in my step. I took a short walk up a few hundred metres of the mountainside to further acclimatise. Climb high, sleep low, as the saying goes.

Tibetan prayer flags in Jispa
Tibetan prayer flags in Jispa

Jispa to Zing Zing Bar by bike

Between Jispa and Leh there’s no mobile reception. Frankly, I was amazed that there had been so much on the way up. But I was grateful too because it meant I was able to stay in touch with friends and family. Without Charlie’s support, I might have given up already.

The climb from Jispa to Zing Zing Bar is from 3200m to 4500m. I had been trepidatious about this leg of the journey because it was the tipping point. The increase in elevation meant that should I become sick on the way up, I would almost certainly be heading back to Sissu and my Manali to Leh bike trip would be over.

Happily, while I was recuperating, Avinash had organised a support vehicle to accompany us to Leh. It was a huge morale booster. We placed all our luggage in the back of the Gypsy, plus enough snacks and water to keep us going between overnight stops. It was a game-changer.

The climb up to Zing Zing Bar was tough but thanks to the Gypsy, it was manageable. On reflection, it’s almost certain that I would have quit without it. Either that or it would have taken me many more days to reach Leh. But mainly and importantly, to have Avinash by my side on the journey was a real blessing.

no network in ladakh at the end of the known world
No network in Ladakh at the end of the known world

Cycling into Ladakh

As we climbed into Ladakh I received an alarming phone call. Charlie had discovered an Indian red, the country’s most deadly scorpion, next to the bed. Our six-month-old daughter sleeping soundly just a few feet away. Understandably, she was a little panicked.

Two thousand miles away in one of the most remote parts of the country, there was little I could do save offer encouragement and calm. A few hours and Google searches later Charlie figured out what she needed to do. A few drops of lavender and cedar oil with the creature enclosed in an upturned glass were enough to see it expire.

The WhatsApp exchange was only possible because the Indian Army had recently installed a new telephone mast at Baralacha La. Blessing or curse maybe, but perhaps useful.

a light weight bikepacking set up is best for cycling indian himalayas
A lightweight bikepacking set up is best for Cycling Manlia to Leh

Zing Zing Bar to Sarchu via Baralacha La

By no means an easy day, this felt like a respite from the intensity of the journey so far. We pedalled at a sensible rate, cruising through the kilometres with relative ease.

The Suraj Taal, the source of the Bhaga River, glistens reflections as we glide along. I was beginning to feel much better on the bike. Avinash, too, was happy to be cycling along the clean, smooth asphalt with the sun on his back.

After Rohtang, at 4,890m, the Baralacha La Pass is the fourth highest of the five passes that are climbed on a Manali to Leh bike trip. We summited together feeling confident in our ability to overcome the high altitude of the remaining climbs.

cycling baralacha pass altitude 4850m
Cycling baralacha pass altitude 4850m

Cycling the Gata Loops

By now, despite the unnerving communication with Goa, I was feeling much stronger. The cycle up the famed Gata Loops was one of the highlights of the trip. The neat switchbacks reminiscent of Swiss Alpine climbs, graduating the ascent in manageable portions of gradient.

There came a false summit ahead of the Nakee La Pass which spun us out a tad. Undaunted, we pushed on over the top and prepared for the rough and ready descent to our stopover for the night –  Whiskey Nala.

The Nakee-la is a 23-kilometer rise with 21 hairpin turns from 4250m to 4980m.

The story has it that Whisky Nala was named for an officer who was partial to a drop, and since the place is an absolute freezing hell of a valley at 4600m, a wee dram goes a long way to ease the chills. Our night here was pretty rough, but nothing compared to these guys in 2011.

a draughty tent at whiskey nala
A draughty tent at Whiskey Nala on the road to Lah

Lachulung La by bicycle

An early start on the climb over the 5,065m summit of Lachulung La was a welcome warm-up after the icy blasts of the previous night. Kangla Jal, a meandering river set deep in a tall and narrow valley, flows en route to Pang and is one of the great rewards of this ride.

A Martian landscape of red rock stacked high, tunnels bored through rock in a vast cavern of intense formations towards a small bridge that crosses the water to connect the road with Pang.

At this point, all things being equal, we should have stopped for the day and rested, as per Avinash’s training itinerary. Having recovered near full strength since Jispa, I was in no mind to put my feet up at 11am. I insisted, sadly, to Avi’s detriment.

Following a brief lunch of Maggi noodles and fizzy drinks, we climbed out of Pang up on to the More Plains. First we caught a tailwind that sped us along at a handsome rate of knots, only for the wind to turn some short kilometres later to become a savage headwind.

We wheeled through a ferocious dust storm into Debring, basecamp of the final climb to Leh, tired and frustrated. Avinash found it difficult to settle that night and I began to feel like I’d been too enthusiastic in my encouragement.

cycling to the summit of lachulung la pass altitude 5,065m
Cycling to the summit of Lachulung La, altitude 5,065m

Cycling Tanglang La – the highest pass of our Manali to Leh bike trip

Next day Avinash was prepared but despondent. He’d slept little and was showing signs of AMS. As an intensivist (A&E Doctor), he knew very well that he was on borrowed time.

We set off in bright sunshine to scale the highest and steepest pass between Manali and Leh. At 5,328m, Tanglang La was until fairly recently, the second-highest motorable road in the world.

Three-quarters of the way to the top, Avinash was ready to quit. His oxygen levels were down and he was struggling to catch his breath. It was a serious complaint and one I felt responsible for. We should have stayed in Pang.

I sat on the edge of the road with him and we shared a chai and a Kit Kat. We stared over the epic expanse of mountain and air beyond our dangling feet. A little gentle persuasion got Avi back on his bike and we crossed the summit together – a total whiteout, snow falling in giant flakes in a brisk crosswind.

final view of tanglang la pass
Final view of Tanglang La

Cycling the Indus River and Hemis National Park

Shortly after we began the descent towards Leh, Avinash took a lift in the support vehicle to a homestay a few miles lower down the mountain. I met him some hours later to share a delicious home-cooked thali. Moments after the meal, Avi projectile vomited and the decision was made to take him directly to Leh hospital with our guide as companion.

Cycling along the Indus River I felt a wave of gratitude. I witnessed one of the most stunning and diverse landscapes I’ve ever seen. A high-sided canyon with gompas, small holdings and family homes all supported by this lustrous river flowing generously through an ancient scene.

I stopped off for a pizza late in the afternoon, the first Western food advertised since Manali. A dog pottered lazily, back and forth across the dusty road. Traffic was sparse but fast-moving, tourists heading home from an awe-inspiring holiday, stories chattering rapidly into mobile phones with distant relatives.

As the pizza arrived, the dog took a sniff and followed his nose into the path of a speeding car. It was a bleak moment. Locals carried the hound away behind a wall and attempted to quell the animals suffering.

gompas on the road to leh
Gompas on the road to Leh

Manali to Leh bike trip – is it for you?

Finally, I reached Leh. I saw our guide briefly in the street, he was away on another assignment. I reunited with Avinash at a comfortable hotel, north of the city. We’d done it!

It had been a heck of a ride but we’d made it to Leh. We’d crossed five of the highest passes in India with our bicycles. Our Manali to Leh bike trip had been a rollercoaster of a ride – one to remember.

Huge thanks to Avinash, my friend and cycling companion, I couldn’t have done it without you. An everyday hero, saving lives and motivating out-of-shape bike adventurers on the regular. They say teamwork makes the dream work, and in this instance, it’s true.

I’ve got lots of photographs to share which I’ll post on Instagram eventually.

Sea level to 5360m in a fortnight. Not bad for a bootstrapped Indian bike adventure.

final road sign on the manali to leh bike trip
Final road sign on the Manali to Leh bike trip

Have you made the Manali to Leh bike trip? Share your stories here!

This is a handy resource for a Manali to Leh bike trip  – includes exacting details like distances, altitudes and costings. There are some great videos too.

Our ride was also written up in the Times of India here – it’s behind a paywall.