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Cycling in Himalayas - Doing the Shimla / Spiti / Leh trail on your own

This post is intended for beginners, who plan to do the famous Manali-Leh bicycle tour. Written after my first Himalayan cycling covering 900 Kms in Shimla - Spiti - Leh route in 2014. Enjoy !

I will split up the note into three parts: Planning / Preparation / Ride

Chapter One: Planning

Planning Dates:

Have mandatory buffer days. Landslides are common in lower Himalayas. The main reason is due to hydropower plant along the way. There can be unforeseen technical issues. In my case, I broke my derailleur middle of nowhere, the closest permanent settlement was 90 km’s away. So, it’s wise to have at least two buffer days.

60 / 90 Rule:

When you plan your dates, ensure you ride minimum 60kms per day or maximum 90 km’s day. Even if you reach hours early to your destination, take rest, clean your bike and wash your clothes. Your body needs everyday rest. People keep pushing for a couple of days and take a buffer day. I don’t understand that concept. Take ample break every day, so that you ride every day and save your buffer days.

Long days:

Days are longer in the Himalayas. Sun set after 8 PM. So you got a really long day to finish your ride.Take your time, do it at your own phase.

Packing:

You need a day to pack your cycle in Leh. Finding carton is big trouble and we spent a lot of time searching for it. At the time of this writing, I learned that airlines in India accept cycles without packing too. Carton packs your cycle. Recently some airline has started to accept cycles without packing with deflated tires. On the return journey, finding carton in Srinagar was easy than Leh. There is two Hero Cycle showroom in Srinagar where you can get cycle cartons.

Planning Flight:

Book your flights early: Plan your flight tickets at least 6 months before your journey dates. So that you get enough time to prepare for your ride and can find cheap flight tickets. Ideal time would be January / February.

Check-in or Cargo:

Almost all airlines have started to collect “Special Handling” fee for cycles recently. We were flying with IndiGo for our onward journey ( from Bangalore ) and paid additional 1000 INR apart from 250 INR / Kg for extra luggage as Check-in. On our return from Srinagar, we booked our cycles in IndiGo Cargo, it was half the price but the catch is: 1: Srinagar airport is high-security zone, so a lot of checking, scanning and police scrutiny. 2: If you got connecting flights from Mumbai, most likely your package will not get shipped in the same flight. So you have to wait at Cargo terminal and the amount of paperwork is just plain STUPID.

Airport Taxi:

Book your taxi before. We used Just Dial to search for a taxi. Bargain to reduce the price.

This route needs at least 17-20 days to finish. People have done the same route in 14 days too. That’s not for all and they were lucky not to encounter any technical issues. We had 22 days and completed our ride in 15 days and took a rest day in Leh ( day 16 ). Went to Khardung-la and back ( day 17 ). Rest day (day 18 ). Hired a motorbike to visit places around Leh and went to Tso Moriri Lake ( day 19-20 ). One day for searching carton and packing ( day 21). It takes one and a half day to reach Srinagar from Leh by bus or shared taxi. So plan your dates according. You can also fly back to Delhi from Leh, our return flights were from Srinagar.

Planning Routes:

Customise route based on your dates. Things to consider while planning your routes

  • Keep an average distance of 60-80 Km/day.

  • Take rest every day. So that you can save buffer days

  • Ensure you pass one major town every week; You need to wash your clothes, call your loved ones, re-stock your supply, buy medicine, toiletries etc..

  • Do only one pass a day. On pass day, start early!

  • Avoid tourist place off the road, you are in a cycle and will waste a lot of time on them. For example: Going to Chandra Taal Lake, which is 14 km’s off the main route.

  • Have a day wise target. Take a break if you are really worn out or take a bus or truck on the way to your next destination.

Contacts:

One POC: Its good to have a friend back home as a point of contact for a constant update about your ride. Share him all the details and Emergency contact numbers and plan. In our case, we got separated into two teams and the team ahead always dropped a message to our common POC to pass the message to the second team. There are no mobile signals along the way.

Stickers:

One member from the first team got stickers pasted at the place where he stopped. So it was easy for us to track and know that the other team is safe. Sometime you will be without electricity or mobile signal for a week. Sticker technique is best.

Local reference:

At a couple of army checkout, you have to make entry. The inline permit was not necessary for Indians. If you got any friends along the route, that would be great for any needy situation.

Planning Travel / Stay:

  • Tents: you don’t have to book any hotels. Only big towns got hotels to stay and there are cheap. Maybe Leh alone you need to book, as it gets crowded with tourist during summer. Most halt places are temporary tent settlements. They will charge you around 150 INR per night with a blanket.

  • Sleeping bag: You can carry your sleeping bag, as many beds in these tents smell damp due to weather. It’s good to have your sleeping bag.

  • Toilets: Tents don’t have toilets. Carry wet wipes to clean your body. Some tent provided, open pit as a toilet. Carry toilet rolls, else you are doomed.

  • Cycle Lock: Carry lightweight cycle locks, tie all cycle together and remove your saddle bag and bottles from your cycle. My friends allen keys got stolen from their saddle bag and it happened in big towns, not in these tents. You don’t need a stand, will add up extra weight.

Chapter Two: Preparation

Mind over body:

It’s a gruelling long journey with the worst possible road, less oxygen, constant uphill, intense sun combined with remoteness and without much vegetation. So it’s all come to one factor: How strong are you mentally? Going through such extreme conditions, your inner voice gonna constantly tell you to give up. It is this struggle within yourself is hundred times more harder than the terrain itself.

  • Ride Alone: Learn to ride alone and be independent on food supply, technical stuff, money, etc.., everyone will be at their own phase and you get separated for long hours.

  • Weather: You are at high altitude. The sun will be intense, at the same time you fill feel the cold air blown in the valleys. The weather will change quickly from hot sunny day to sudden downpour. Though the probability of rain diminish as you go higher, local villagers said, in recent time the weather pattern have changed a lot. So, you can expect short showers.

  • Worst Roads: Brace yourself for the bad road. Practice in the worst possible road you find near you. Roads will be a major demotivating factor in this trip. The roads are narrow and get damaged by constant landslide and snow. BRO is doing a great job maintaining the road and clearing landslides quickly. But, due to remoteness and with the fact, it’s open only for 4 months for access. Improvements are slow.

  • No Music: If you are habituated to listing music while riding. Give it up, unless you carry a handy solar charger. There is no electricity for most places and the small town to suffer due to a landslide.

Preparation: Practice rides

  • Ride every day: Apart from weekend practice, you need to practice every day at least 30kms. It’s important to ride every day for your body to get adapted.

  • Uphill with weight: Riding in Himalaya is all about uphill and downhill. Practice lot of uphill/downhill, importantly with weight. I have seen people do uphill easily with an empty bike but with weight its a whole different story.

  • Off-roading: Pick up a bad downhill or mountain trail and practice off roading. The roads are bad and there is long downhill from the passes. You need to learn to balance your bike weight and bad downhill. So it will be helpful.

  • Food / Water: As you go high in the Himalaya, there will be long stretches without villages and no water source. So, when you do practice ride learn to manage your water and food. Carry a hydration bag, it’s helpful and better than gulping lot of water from a bottle.

Preparation: Bike

  • Change worn out parts at least a month before your ride. Don’t change parts last week before the ride. Avoid last minute servicing and practice with your new components. Importantly tires.

  • Learn to fix your bike. Puncture, Brake / Gear tuning, Chain link, Cable change and to assemble/dismantle your bike for packing.

  • Most important: Practice in the same bike you are gonna use for your ride. Don’t practice in a road bike and take your MTB for the ride.

Preparation: Shopping

  • Buy your spare parts like cables, puncture kit, pump, allen keys, chain link and tool, brake pads back home. There’s only one cycle shop in Manali, where you get these things of entry level quality.

  • Buy your food/toiletries at your start point. In our case, we did our shopping in Chandigarh.

  • You need clothes for a cold night and sunny day. The downhill from passes, early morning ride will be cold. Carry warm gloves, your brakes will be damn cold and your fingers will become numb after long rides. Carry leg/hand warmers to avoid tanning and prevent cold.

  • Buy Energy bar, Electrol, Dry fruits/nuts, Chocolate bars from your start point.

  • Carry your medicine. Except for kaza, there’s no medical shop in Spiti valley.

  • Bungee cord is mandatory. To keep your panniers intact and to tie your cycle when transporting in bus or taxi.

Chapter Three: The Ride

  • Start your ride early. Particularly on pass day!

  • Carry a hydration bag. Days are hot and sunny, you need to keep yourself hydrated. Importantly, you are at high altitude and its utmost necessary to keep your body hydrated.

  • Take Sunscreen, hand/leg warmers, Lipcare, sunglasses, a bandana to cover your face or pollution mask.

  • Prepare yourself for continuous uphill/downhill.

  • Do it at your own phase.

  • Refill water at streams on the way

  • Worst possible roads/landslide / shooting stone on the way. Be careful

  • Food options are limited. Carry protein shake, if need.

Pictures from my ride:

Ladakh Valley

Spiti Valley

Kinnaur Valley