Pedal To The Peak: A Bike Ride To Khardung La

Take in the sights of the mountain ranges and high altitude passes as you cover the iconic Manali-Khardung La highway
Pedal To The Peak: A Bike Ride To Khardung La

The elevation chart looks like a heart patient’s ECG. More than 200 km of the journey is above 4,000 m, with no permanent human habitation. The enemies are bitterly cold, cutting headwinds, broken roads, heartbreaking uphill climbs and, more than anything else, extreme gains in altitude. When you finally get to Leh, you will have the right to try cycling up to Khardung La, one of the highest motorable roads in the world.

The highway from Manali to Khardung La is iconic. There are more challenging roads and technically tougher rides, but none are relatively as high. Bicycling to Khardung La—the touring cyclist’s equivalent of the mountaineer’s Everest—may not be the hardest, but it’s the most thrilling. Only half of the road is tarmac—the rest is rocks, gravel, sand, slush and imagination.

It was raining in Manali as we opened our bike boxes and started building our bikes. We got to know each other over a mess of Trek top tubes and Cannondale handlebars. None of us, eight guys and a girl were the brightest lights of the Tour de France—a doctor, a lawyer, a financial analyst, a designer, a director’s assistant, a couple of executives, two students—all of us regular Joes and weekend riders headed for eight days of hell on a saddle.

The valley of the Beas, which thunders in the monsoon, is green and lush from Manali to Marhi. I was reminded of Tolkien’s Misty Mountains—the rock faces, the coniferous trees, the waterfalls cutting down brown rocks. As we left the trees behind, the hills were lush green, and blue eldritch bloomed in clumps. This was an easy 35 km climbing, but nothing compared to what was to come, especially once we started up for the passes.

Khardung La
Khardung La Shutterstock

‘Rohtang’ means a pile of corpses — a warning that the pass we were about to climb was naturally malevolent. The road had dissolved into mud and slush caused by a jumble of cars, trucks, and motorcycles belching diesel fumes and spinning their wheels helplessly in the monsoon rain. We could at least push through the knee-deep slush, cyclocross style.

The mist was swept away on the other side of the chorten, and we realised we were under Lahaul’s clear blue skies. Over the next two days, we cycled from Sissu to Jispa and then from Jispa to Patseo, discovering each other in the valleys of Lahaul—our families, frailties, and follies. Far away from cell phone networks, we learned to talk without interruption and to focus on people and places instead of screens.

The climb to Baralacha La (4,892m) is long and arduous, with endless switchbacks. The air is thinner than any I have ever known. I feel like dying, like giving up, like sitting down and crying. It is cold, and the wind knives through my pants. My legs have no strength, and the road stretches endlessly uphill ahead of me. I am not alone.

We finally reach Surajtal—cobalt blue water in a bowl of brown dirt, the pass finally within striking distance. The Baralacha La gets its name because it's central to 12 paths, a crossroads in the Trans-Himalaya that connects Ladakh, Spiti, Lahaul, and Zanskar. In Rudyard Kipling's Kim, holy men use the pass to cross from Tibet into India.

We rode down to Bharatpur from Baralacha La and then relaxed at a beautiful serai. The serais we saw from here onward followed the same nomadic pattern—rock shelves covered with mattresses and then with blankets. At Bharatpur, a stove was in the corner with eggs, tea, packets of Maggi noodles, and a small bar. Outside, an old man rolled his fingers over prayer beads. It was charming, but the mountains here compress air into a narrow valley, and there’s much less oxygen than there should be. A strange ennui settled over us, and I was glad to leave it behind.


At Sarchu, the next day, our expedition leader, Dhananjay, woke us up with breakfast and a gleeful warning that the next day of climbing would be far harder. It was warm and easy from Sarchu to the bottom of the famous Gata Loops, 22 long switchbacks that wind like intestines to gain 500m of altitude in 8 kilometres. The road climbed to Nakee La (4,950m) from the top of the Gata Loops, and there was a merciful descent to Takh after that. A serai offered lemon tea and eggs as refreshments at Takh, but our hearts quailed at the wall of rock before us. The sun was going down, and another pass, the Lachulang La (5,100m), loomed ahead. It was starting to get cold, but we rolled for it. Himalayan marmots popped in and out of holes in the hillside as we pushed upward.

Beyond Pang, the highway rises onto the Morey Plains, a desert at 4,000m. Ripping across the sandy face of the plateau was a treat after the hard climbing of the previous days. On that wide patch of sand, there is only one settlement—two nomadic tents at Tso Kar.

Tso Kar, a massive salt lake, is God’s own bowl in the mountains, full of white sand and thick, lush grass rooted around the lake. Wild horses graze here. A horseman appears over one of the hills, and you can see him coming forever.

The next day, we climbed Taglang La, one of the world's highest motorable passes. Halfway up the Taglang La, it started to hail and rain, and we took shelter in BRO huts. One of the road workers asked us why we had come this way. I found this hysterically funny—17,000 feet from sea level, cold, wet, hungry, exhausted, and miserable—this was our idea of a holiday.

Entering Leh was a tremendous anti-climax. After hours of riding over its beautiful, green suburbs, past monasteries that rose into the sky, the entry point to a now fully commercialised Leh is a small green board bent away from the road. Baths, clean clothing, and actual beds beckoned. Mirrors revealed that we were skinny, sunburnt, brown, and dirty, all the way down to the molecular level. Welcome to civilisation, I thought bitterly, and now, for the first time in two weeks, I would have to lock my cycle.

The pinnacle of our effort, the Khardung La, was an incredible challenge—more than two vertical kilometres over a 40 km road. It took me nearly eight hours of climbing to get up to it, and I was dizzy in the thin air. The last five kilometres were pure torture—insane gradients, jagged rocks puncturing tyres, the cold, the treachery of turns in the road. And then, finally, we were there, screaming with joy, hugging each other, seeing the Nubra Valley. We had achieved that for which we had come. Then we turned and swept down the road, proud as eagles.

The Information

How To Do The Trip

Do it unsupported only if you are an experienced touring cyclist. Otherwise, go with a reliable expedition. In any case, cycling experience and decent cardiovascular fitness are essential. There may be medical risks related to the altitude and severe exposure.

Where To Stay

There are very affordable parachute-tented serais at convenient stops, or you can pitch your own tent. You can stock up on supplies here. There are no hotels or guesthouses on this route.

The Bike

A basic hardtail mountain bike with good suspension and thick tyres is essential. We had a mix of Treks and Cannondales, and one Firefox. Whatever it is, the most important things be very comfortable riding it and be able to carry out basic repairs.

Gear Essentials

Carry spare tubes, chain lube, gloves, warm clothes and a medical kit. You can take soap it&rsquos nice to look at.

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