The allure of the mountain ranges in the Indian Himalayas has a way of drawing you closer. Cycling in India on the Leh to Srinagar highway has long been one of my dreams, especially to cycle tour the rare stretches of asphalt in the Northern parts of India.
The snow-peaks, the contentment, the thin clear air and general sense of exhilaration teaches you to slow down and appreciate the many colours of nature. You get a kick from carrying whatever little belongings you have, leaving away the luxury of your 21st-century life to seek the contentment of nature and thrill of riding on a bicycle.
With the Manali to Leh stretch being increasingly popular with Royal Enfield bikers, we decided to try cycling a shorter route in India that will take us from Leh to the Lamayuru Monastery on to the Leh to Srinagar highway covering 114km.
Cycling in India: Tripping on the Indian Himalayan Mountains
Riding out, we noticed men on Royal Enfields roaring into the wilderness carrying their tents, tool kit and fuel strapped onto their backseat. Sometimes you see them struggling to navigate the steep bends, and sometimes you see them parked by the cliff staring into the mountains, with deep, exasperated eyes.
It’s astounding how long-term cycle tourers and bikers are willing to go through hell to climb three to five mountain passes, which includes some of the highest passes in the world. This is probably a testament to the splendour of the Ladakh mountain ranges and its desolate and barren lands.
We reserved our Giant mountain bikes from the Summer Leh mountain bike shop on the infamous Changspa Road and the rental per day costed us around 700 rupees ($10). We carried our small backpacks carrying all that we needed for our short trip, since panniers were hard to find over here unless you had a motorbike.
Yet another sunless day - the whole valley was a mix grey and brown under the sullen sky, making our cycling journey in India quite a breeze. It was the perfect time to be out on the road, cycle touring in August in Ladakh, India in an otherwise harsh region during the other seasons of the year.
We were being ourselves, freeing and wholeheartedly enjoying the cool morning air on our bicycle as we rode out of Leh making our way to the next town, and noticing the Army personnel going about their morning rituals and training.
Thrill on Wheels
The air was thin, our throats parched but our hearts full with contentment - it was a whirlwind of emotions. I had imagined severe uphill climbs and snail-paced speed at the altitude that we were riding at of 3,200 metres but the quality of the road was angled perfectly that my bicycle seat felt like it was attached to a carousel.
The road kept spiraling downwards and if we looked high enough, it almost felt like we were flying. However, we were exposed to the polluting vehicles including the heavy-duty army trucks with their blaring honks to signify their presence.
My brakes had to be squeezed with tremendous force to counter the rapid acceleration of large trucks, string of army trucks, tourist jeeps and roving Enfields.
The Road is Life
As the distance between the bends stretched far and wide, we glided smoothly over these long stretches of pure asphalt. We freewheeled and reached Gurdwara Pathar Sahib.
Gurdwara Pathar Sahib stands at the place where Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion and the first guru, is believed to have defeated a demon. While most of Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist, Gurdwara Pathar Sahib is also known to be worshipped by the Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists refer to Guru Nanak as Guru Gompka Maharaj and as Nanak Lama.
The Guru Pathar Sahib is maintained by the Indian Army, and it is tradition for vehicles to stop and pay respect at the temple before continuing with our journey. Just like what we intended to do.
Stopping here, I was flooded with memories of my trip to Ladakh in winter, two years ago when I did the Chadar Trek. It was nice to come back to Ladakh and see its vivid transformation by the thaw - to not see it completely covered with snow.
Also Read: The Chadar Trek Ladakh: Life at -30 degrees
We went to the temple to say our prayers, climbed the stairs further up and also witnessed the rock thrown by the demon towards Guru Nanak. On our way down, we had tea and snacks and it was just incredibly humbling to witness the stoic existence of the mountains surrounded by the temple.
The Magnetic Hill of Ladakh
Not too far from the Gurdwara, we came across one of the famous sight called the Magnetic Hill, the place where gravity takes a backseat. The Magnetic Hill is marked by a yellow signboard which reads “The Phenomenon That Defies Gravity”. Just a few meters away from magnetic Hill, there’s a yellow box where you must park your car in neutral gear and you’re suppose to notice your car moving forward at a speed of around 20km/h without any effort on your part.
It doesn’t take long to realise that this is a gimmick to beguile the tourists. There were spaces for you to even try quad biking to soak up the thrill of this mystery phenomenon.
We slowly got on to our saddle and ploughed our way to the next town in the hunt for food.
Reaching Level Deadness
The Indus River kept us company the whole time. By now, it was lunch time and the searing heat made us peckish and thirsty.
Craving for city comforts seemed like a crime. It was our decision to do this, but you start questioning your sanity when the sun strips you off your chirpiness and moisture.
We reached level deadness filled with upheavals of rock and mountains, no shrubs or plants in sight. It took us about an hour with some steady climbs to find a decent place to eat at Nimmu, a little village where all white water rafting activities from Leh to Zanskar take place here. The snow-capped mountains looked down at us in amusement.
We looked completely worn out, but we were smiling from ear to ear when we came across a stunning guesthouse and cottage called Nilza Guest House with beautiful Tibetan tables and some preppy Ladakhi music. They had some modern-day comforts like WiFi and a proper usable restroom.
But we could hardly wait and ordered chapattis, naan, egg curry and aloo gobi. We ravenously wolfed down our food and spent the lunch time staring at the epic mountains of our odyssey.
I looked at the clear blue sky and truly wondered if I was romanticising the skies or if it really looked like the sky is giving birth to the universe.
It is difficult to accept that we have to leave our cosy lunch space to continue our ride. Jelly-like, and our tummies too full to move, we dragged our feet and got our bearings together and headed for a our cycling journey onwards to our final frontier - Alchi.
Nature had played dice with my body. After crossing the Indus, a steep winding road ascends with crazy hair-pin bends. We had to pedal as slowly as we could to pace ourselves, while I took breaks at every turn. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see Army truckers and bikers waving a hand of encouragement.
The afternoon heat was still unbearable and I would find excuses to delay, stopping every now and then but decided I had to try and make this through no matter what. After completing some hellish bends, I reunited with my partner and we took to the side of the road to just rest, and that’s when my legs decided to give up on me. I suffered some severe leg cramps in my hamstrings. It was a big blow to my confidence.
And I imagined what others would say if they saw me reduced to tears because of some leg cramps, and so I tried pedaling on but I just could’t. In the end, we ended up hitchhiking eventhough it was the last 10km of the trip.
We stopped an Army truck but losing all senselessness wondered why would an army truck take in civilians, but decided to ask anyway. I was surprised they stopped but only to state the obvious “No!”
In the end, an Indian fuel truck stopped and gladly obliged. Relieved, we passed our bicycles so that he could neatly place it next to the gas cylinder. Wasn’t sure if he was feeling the effects of the altitude or if it was us but he did ask “If this bicycle would blow up if he puts it next to the liquid cylinder?”. Gobsmacked, I wondered if he could tell the difference between a bicycle and a motorbike.
We reached our designated stop and was so glad to find a small guest house with a decent bed and stunning views of the valley in this small little village called Alchi. Unfortunately, the trip to Lamayuru monastery was slashed and we decided to take a breather, and a slow bus ride back to Leh the next day.
In hindsight, it was a blissful ride, terrain-wise, weather-wise and every-otherwise. While the journey was short, we definitely felt smug and felt like we had the best experience of gliding through roads with unbelievable views and terrain. Despite the pitfalls, the philosophy of our ride was not exactly counting miles, but to cycle tour and experience the different sights of the Indian Himalayas.
Trip Route and Details, if you want to Cycle Tour all the way from Leh to Srinagar:
Day 1: Leh-Alchi (66km)
Day 2: Alchi-Lamayuru (56km)
Day 3: Lamayuru-Hansikot (27km)
Day 4: Hansikot-Mulbek (41km)
Day 5: Mulbek-Kargil (38km)
Day 6: Kargil-Dras (58km)
Day 7: Dras-Sonamarg (64km)
Day 8: Sonamarg-Gandarbal (63km)
Day 9: Gandarbal-Srinagar (25km)
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