Cycling the Himalayas: Selected Routes and Itineraries for Bikepacking India

Cycle touring the Indian Himalayas; Manipur to Ladakh by Bike

Let me take you on an unforgettable journey cycling the Himalayas. To the majestic landscapes of the far north of India.

In 2015, I cycled from Vietnam to the UK. During that time, I cycled a fair portion of northern India. Primarily the remote North East as I crossed from Myanmar into India.

Since then, I’ve been living in India seasonally in Goa. I chose to stay for the lockdown and consequently, had greater access to explore the country further.

At the tail-end of 2021, I cycled from Chandigarh to Leh, a long-held ambition to see more of the northwest of the country.

hero cycles - the finest bikes in india
Hero Single Speed – The Indian Standard in Cycling

Cycling the Himalayas

This piece, Cycling the Himalayas, is intended to offer a broad insight into bikepacking India generally and bring the northern regions an up-to-date route itinerary for self-supported bike travel.

If you need it, here’s a ballpark cycle touring kit list, and you probably don’t need one for this trip, but here’s a selection of bikepacking tents.

I’ll start chronologically, from 2015 up to date which will take us neatly East to West across the north of India, with a mini hiking trip to Nepal in the middle.

My approach to long-distance bike travel tends towards the ‘screw it, let’s do it’ school of planning.

I’ll include details for altitude, distances and terrain where necessary but largely speaking, in 2023, most of India is accessible and in my experience, anything is possible.

cycling to the himalayas from moreh border in manipur
John cycles through the streets of Manipur on the way up to the Himalayas

Imphal to Cherrapunji by bike: Cycling the Himalayas in Remote North East India

The North East of India offers bikepacking expeditions that are full of surprises, challenges, and incredible encounters.

Much of the region’s roads are little more than gravel tracks, save the Assam, where there is pristine asphalt to extract the tea with a minimum of fuss.

Anywhere in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will yield a fine fix of gravel travel with the odd tribal encounter thrown in for good measure.

the road to mon; north east india by bike
Cycling the Himalayas of the remote north east of India

The Challenging Route to Mon

It all started high above the town of Kiphire, where my cycling buddy, John, and I received a daunting warning about dangerous rebels and blocked roads.

But we were determined to explore the region, and the only direct road to Mon led us through this treacherous path.

We pushed forward on a rugged dirt track, tackling challenging terrains and facing scarce food supplies.

Along the way, we crossed paths with the Tikhir tribe and their blockade, but a brief negotiation and a secret route helped us break through the obstacles and reach our destination.

another warm welcome in north east india
Another warm welcome in north east India

Experiencing Culture in Manipur

As we journeyed through Manipur, we stumbled upon the village of Lunghar. A sudden earthquake jolted us from our sleep in the guest house of the local Pastor.

But this was just the beginning of an incredible cultural experience. We attended the first church service of the year and were welcomed with open arms.

The legacy of Christian missionaries in the region was evident, as many locals spoke English and showed immense kindness, generosity, and warmth.

the headhunters of the konyak tribe in nagaland
The headhunters of the Konyak tribe in Nagaland

A Week with the Headhunters of Longwa

Finally, we reached Mon, and our adventure took an even more fascinating turn in the village of Longwa.

This place was unique as the international border divided it in two – the chief slept in Burma but took breakfast in India.

Our host for the week was Longshah, the junior village president, who also ran the only Homestay in Longwa.

During our stay, we had the humbling opportunity to attend the funeral of one of the last remaining headhunters.

Witnessing their traditions and history was truly a moving experience.

the local news team interview the cycle tourer in assam
The local news team interview the cycle tourer in Assam

Cycling the Assam: A Break from the Mountains

A Touch of Media Attention in Assam

At this point, John took a train to Kolkota. His trip coming to an end after three months cycling to the Himalayas.

I ventured onwards into Assam, my journey caught the attention of the local news channel, News Live.

I was interviewed about our motivations for this grand adventure. It was a moment of introspection as I tried to put into words the reasons behind our journey.

Later, as if the universe conspired to answer my thoughts, I encountered a pair of elephants by the roadside.

However, I couldn’t bring myself to ride them, knowing the mistreatment they often endure.

shillong - the scotland of the east
Shillong – the Scotland of the East

Exploring the Scotland of the East

In Meghalaya, I was awestruck by the natural beauty that surrounded us. Cherrapunji, known as the wettest place on Earth, was our ultimate destination.

The living root bridges and abundant waterfalls in this region were absolutely mesmerizing.

I dared to venture into the West Khasi Hills despite warnings of danger.

Surrounded by pristine nature and welcomed by kind families, I discovered the true essence of the Scotland of the East.

cycling into the himalyas: the living root tree bridges of cherrapunji in meghalaya
Cycling into the Himalayas: the living root tree bridges of Cherrapunji in Meghalaya

Cycling the Himalayas in remote North East India was an experience of a lifetime

As I reflect on my journey from Imphal to Cherrapunji, I’m overwhelmed by the incredible encounters, the breathtaking beauty of the region, and the kindness of the people we met along the way.

It’s moments like these that fuel my passion for adventure cycling and reminds me of the untamed beauty that lies waiting to be explored on two wheels.

assam rifles barracks welcome the bikepackers
Assam Rifles barracks welcome the bikepackers

Cycling from Meghalaya to Darjeeling

The next phase of this East-to-West bikepacking itinerary is an incredible journey from Meghalaya to Darjeeling.

Meghalaya is sandwiched between Bangladesh and the Brahmaputra River.

A little south of the Himalayas proper, this unique state of India is a rare and exotic place to visit for the intrepid cycle touring explorer.

john crosses the bridge from manipur to nagaland with his thorn touring bicycle
John crosses the bridge from Manipur to Nagaland with his Thorn touring bicycle

Crossing the border at Tamu/Moreh

After a month in Myanmar, I enjoyed tea and puri at a chai stand in Moreh town, I unexpectedly met Jiles, a 21-year-old Belgian hitchhiker crossing the border from Myanmar to Manipur.

It was a pleasant surprise to find another traveller in these lesser-travelled regions of North East India.

Little did we know that this encounter was just the beginning of meeting like-minded adventurers on our respective journeys.

Cherrapunji’s Annual Feast

Arriving in Cherrapunji, known as one of the wettest places on Earth, I was recommended to see the living root bridges.

At By The Way hostel, we met Heprit, the owner with a striking resemblance to Robbie Coltrane.

My stay took an exciting turn when I again met Jiles and Thomas, a French vegetarian hiker.

Together, we experienced the joy and surprises of the annual feast in the village, complete with music contests, traditional songs, and a unique butchering ceremony for the feast.

a dawes galaxy touring bike rests high on the road to darjeeling in north east india
A Dawes Galaxy touring bike rests high on the road to Darjeeling in north east India

The Road to Lava: Cycling the Himalayan foothills

My Indian bike adventure continued with a thrilling ride towards Lava.

The landscape was simply awe-inspiring – alpine forests, rivers cascading down deep valleys, and picturesque curves.

I camped with locals, shared music, and created memories that will last a lifetime.

Exploring Gangtok by Bike

Reaching Sikkim, the smallest and cleanest Indian state, I had to obtain an Inner Line Permit.

Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, fascinated me with its modernity and vibrant culture. I met more fellow travellers, including Aga, Jack, and a Liverpudlian called Mike – the Indian Bill Oddy.

A day trip to Mangan and a visit to a Buddhist temple in north Sikkim enriched our experience further.

an explorer rests at the mangan monastery in sikkim
An explorer rests at the Mangan monastery in Sikkim

Riding the Steep Climb to Darjeeling

As I left Gangtok, I decided to test my strength and attempt the steep climb to Darjeeling. As you’d expect cycling the Himalayas, there are some rather epic ascents. This one was among the most memorable.

The road to Teesta provided breathtaking views and an adrenaline-pumping descent. However, the climb proved to be challenging, and a broken chain forced me to take a detour.

Thankfully, a friendly local named Rinchin came to my rescue and offered me a place to stay in his beautiful home nestled among tea estates.

Darjeeling Unlimited

The next morning, I woke up to a stunning sunrise over Darjeeling, a reward for my perseverance.

The journey had its ups and downs, but every encounter and experience made it truly special.

climbing the steep road to darjeeling a cycle touring bike rests for a chai
Climbing the steep road to Darjeeling a cycle touring bike rests for a chai

Cycling from Meghalaya to Darjeeling was an adventure beyond my imagination

From meeting fellow travellers and joining in the festivities of local communities to facing challenging climbs and enjoying the beauty of the Himalayas, every moment was a reminder of the joys and rewards of adventure cycling.

Prayers wheels on the Annapurna range in Nepal
Prayers wheels on the Annapurna range in Nepal

Walking the Himalayas

This trek was a fitting end to my four months of exploration in India and marked the beginning of my foot-based Himalayan escapades.

Before even starting the trek, I had an unforgettable experience near the Nepalese border patrol office in Bhimdatta.

I joined the locals for a refreshing dip in the Sharda Mahakali river, feeling the powerful flow cleanse my soul.

The porous Nepali/Indian borders make this remote crossing a bustling trade hub for the locals on both sides.

the mighty annapurna range in nepal
The mighty Annapurna range in Nepal

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit is a challenging and rewarding adventure, and I was fortunate to meet some incredible people along the way.

I crossed paths with Patrick and Rachel, an American couple cycling around Southeast Asia on their anniversary trip.

It warmed my heart to hear their love story, and it gave me hope that romance could be found even on the road as a solo cyclist.

a lone hiker stands with prayer flags with the annapurna range in the background
A lone hiker stands with prayer flags with the Annapurna range in the background

Not Cycling the Annapurna Circuit

Later, I encountered Chris and Isabella, a Polish couple who had just finished cycling the Annapurna Circuit, including the famous Thorung La pass at a staggering 5,416 meters.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, alas I decided to hike the circuit to experience one of the world’s best hiking trails fully.

I also spoke with my best buddy and tourer in crime, Adrian, having trekked the circuit some years earlier, he suggested the bike was a poor companion for the mission.

5416m a hiker stands in a Rab jacket at Thorong La pass the summit of the annapurna circuit
5416m a hiker stands in a Rab jacket at Thorong La pass the summit of the Annapurna circuit

Setting out from Besi Sahar

The Annapurna Circuit offers a variety of landscapes, from alpine forests to grassy meadows and rocky valleys.

The trek to the pass was physically demanding but rewarding.

I formed a team – the Dream Team – with Ananda and Maarten, fellow trekkers, and together we pushed our limits and celebrated each milestone.

The day we reached the Thorung La pass was particularly memorable. The stunning views of Annapurna II and the surrounding peaks were awe-inspiring.

I was even surprised by a group of girls with their midriffs bearing the message, “Thorung La Pass 5,416m – James, you’re the man!”

A hiker celebrates reaching the summit of the Thorong La pass of 5416m altitude
A hiker celebrates reaching the summit of the Thorong La pass of 5416m altitude

Best Yak Pizza At 4,000m

It was a delightful surprise and added to the joy of reaching the pass.

We descended to Muktinath, a sacred pilgrimage site, where we found solace at the Bob Marley Hotel.

There, we enjoyed good food, hot showers, and a celebratory night of camaraderie and laughter.

However, all good things must come to an end.

a nepalese woman sits outside her house in the annapurna range in nepal
A Nepalese woman sits outside her house in the Annapurna range in Nepal

Straight Outta Jomsom

Time and finances were running out, so I had to part ways with my Dream Team and head to Jomsom to catch a bus back to Pokhara.

The journey was long and challenging, but every step of the way was worth it.

My adventure on the Annapurna Circuit came to a close, but the memories and friendships I made will stay with me forever.

The stunning landscapes, the physical challenges, and the camaraderie with fellow trekkers made this journey a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Now, as I sit here reminiscing about those incredible days on the Annapurna Circuit, I can’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to explore the beauty of Nepal and the Himalayas.

If you ever get the chance to trek the Annapurna Circuit, I urge you to do it. It’s a life-changing experience that will fill your heart with joy, wonder, and a sense of accomplishment.

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

Manali to Leh Bike Trip: Bikepacking North West Indian Himalayas

The final section on Cycling the Himalayas is the most recent excursion; a Manali to Leh bike trip.

The adventure was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, filled with breathtaking landscapes, challenging terrains, and unforgettable experiences.

Join me as I recount the highs and lows of this epic cycling expedition through the heart of the Indian Himalayas.

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

Setting Off from Chandigarh:

The journey began with a typical distraction as I needed to replace a snapped bungee right after getting off the train in Chandigarh.

Typical me, always finding some excuse to dawdle!

After pottering around the town, I finally hit the road around 1 pm, cruising along the wide boulevard-style streets of Chandigarh before heading towards the hills.

Cycling Across Himachal Pradesh:

As I pedalled through Himachal Pradesh, the landscape transformed into Big India – full of vibrant colours and endless possibilities.

The rain didn’t dampen my spirits, and despite some technical difficulties, I pushed on, embracing the immersive experience of being drenched to the bone.

The stunning ride made up for any inconvenience, and I found myself pushing through the treacherous conditions to reach Baddi in Himachal for a restful night.

cycling the himalayas: baralacha pass altitude 4850m
Cycling the Himalayas: Baralacha La, altitude 4850m

Cycling at Himalayan Altitude

On day three, I decided to take a bus to Manali to fix my rear calliper, ensuring a safe and enjoyable ride ahead.

The road was under construction, and I thanked my lucky stars for the decision. Cycling without a rear brake would have been foolish.

The scenic journey along the River Beas was a sight to behold, providing a glimpse of the majesty that awaited me.

Rejuvenated and Recharged

After a day of recuperation in Manali, my energy was renewed, and I set off towards Marhi, tackling a 5,000m mountain.

The climb was tough, but the picturesque scenery and the thrill of reaching the summit made it all worthwhile.

I met fellow cyclists along the way, making new connections and sharing the joy of the journey.

a light weight bikepacking set up is best for cycling indian himalayas
A lightweight bikepacking set-up is best for Cycling Indian Himalayas

Biking into Ladakh

As I ventured further into Ladakh, the challenges escalated.

Altitude sickness and flu symptoms tested my resilience, but with determination, support from friends, and a support vehicle, I conquered the passes one by one.

The Gata Loops and Tanglang La tested my mettle, but the breathtaking views and the camaraderie with my cycling companion, Avinash, made it all unforgettable.

The Final Stretch to Leh

The last leg of the journey along the Indus River was awe-inspiring, with stunning landscapes and gompas dotting the route.

I reunited with Avinash in Leh, and we celebrated the achievement of crossing five of India’s highest passes with our trusty bicycles.

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

Manali to Leh By Bike

The Manali to Leh bike trip was a thrilling adventure of a lifetime.

The challenging terrains, the breathtaking scenery, and the camaraderie with fellow cyclists made it an experience to remember.

It’s a journey that tested my limits, pushed me to the edge, and rewarded me with unforgettable memories.

If you’re a bikepacking enthusiast looking for an epic adventure, I highly recommend embarking on this incredible Manali to Leh cycling expedition.

Join me this autumn on a guided bike tour across Ladakh!