The hardest part about Spiti is reaching there. It took us a 22-hour bus ride to get to Rekong Peo. For the sake of acclimatization we had planned the night stay at Kalpa, which is not so far from there, but much higher. And also much nicer. Having had our fill with the HPTDC’s ‘ordinary’ buses, especially given the quantum of our luggage, we choose to just hire a jeep the next day to take us up to Nako (technically still in Kinnaur) – another five odd hour drive.
Nako to Manali cycling route map
In Nako we decided to stay an extra day for altitude acclimatization and for general setting up – bikes needed to be reassembled, washed, lubed and tested. A quick short ride up to the Mulling nullah the next day, reminded us what we had in store for us in the coming days.
Once we finally started riding with our fully laden pannier bags, it was slow going in the beginning. Our systems were still getting used to all the extra weight and the relative lack of oxygen – Nako is at 3600 meters above sea level. The boulder and gravel track up the Mulling nullah, with the ‘Shooting rocks’ warning did not do much to help speed things up.
As if to welcome us with a fair warning for what was ahead Rajan had his first puncture shortly afterwards. We’d barely start riding after fixing a puncture, and he had another. Over the next two days he had close to ten punctures. All of them, save one, in the same tyre. We inspected the wheel setup very carefully, multiple times. The only conclusion we could reasonably draw was that there was something wrong with the tyre - an almost unused Decathlon 700c tyre. Though much wider than a regular road/hybrid tyre, perhaps it was not designed to take on such harsh treatment. Or perhaps there was a manufacturing defect. Interestingly a narrower Bontrager on the rear end managed to hold up much better.
Because of all the puncture mending on the roadside we lost much time and could not keep to the planned schedule. It started to get dark before we could reach Tabo. Not wanting to ride in the dark, we decided to camp in Lari. The best campground we could find in failing light was in the campus of a horse breeding farm. The horses had been moved for the summer to a much higher ground, so the facility felt abandoned and uninhabited, except for a few daily wagers working on some construction project. Pokhar, a Nepalese laborer who was staying on the site, offered to cook for us while we were busy setting up camp and fetching water.
The next day too we were greeted by a spate of punctures. And once again we could not get to our planned destination - Kaza. We ended up searching for a place to stay in Schiling. Dolma Guest House, the only place to stay in that area, was not accepting guests at this time, the young lady told us. They were drying their Barley (Jaun in Hindi and Neh in Spitian) for the winter, and the water from the ‘bath’ room flows into the area where the barley is laid out to dry. Once we offered not to have a bath, she welcomed us and was very hospitable. Interestingly though, when the owner, a wonderful man called Dorje, came back home in the evening he offered another place for us to have a bath, if we were keen on it. We spent hours talking to him and he shared a lot of insights about the economic and cultural history of the area. It is just fascinating what you can learn from chance encounters. This of course wouldn’t have been possible had we not been forced to stay there because of the punctures.
The next day was a short ride to Kaza. And it was time for us to assess our options. All possibilities of acquiring a new tire were explored and then eventually given up as hopeless. Given that all of Rajan’s tubes were endlessly patched, and we had more or less run out of patches too, the conclusion was pretty much staring at our face. But neither of us wanted to acknowledge it. Eventually we did, and decided that I should go ahead and ride solo to Manali, while Rajan would hike in the higher reaches of this beautiful valley. A Manali meeting was set up for four days later – that is how much time it would take me to ride there, if all went as per plan. Given how things were going till now, that seemed unlikely. Especially now that I would be traveling heavier than before, because I needed to be self-sufficient and carry everything all by myself - tent, sleeping bag, stove, food…
On the ride from Kaza to Losar, there was a constant threat of rain, but fortunately I did not get anything more than a drizzle. There was nothing to eat or drink on the way, even though I passed many villages en route. All the people were busy harvesting peas and none of the village shops or dhabas were open for business. It was not too much of a problem because I had dry rations, and I could treat water that I picked up from a small roadside stream.
In Losar the small guesthouse I stayed in, had a rather pleasant restaurant, done in the traditional Spittian style, with everything laid out on the ground. Unfortunately it was taken over by large group of Israelis, who had converted it into a smoking room. And this was not just ordinary smoke. It was that smoke for which some people are willing to travel all the way to Amsterdam. I ended up being confined to my room, because in Losar after nightfall the outdoors is just too cold and windy.
The next day was a big day. I had to cycle up Kunzum la. I have ridden up many high passes in India, so I was expecting it to be though. But it turned out to be even tougher than my expectations. Clearly this has to be among the toughest pass in this part of the world. First of all there is no road. It is not broken tarmac, or patchy tarmac, there is no tarmac at all. In the name of a road you have rocks, boulders, gravel and occasional stream running through all of it. Add to that the unpredictable weather. When it is overcast, as if often is, it can get really cold and windy. I was pretty much wearing every thing I had with me. Thick fleece under the rain jacket, slacks on top of my cycling shorts, my big gloves. And yet I was freezing on the downhill. As if that was not enough it started to drizzle as I started to ride down the pass. The wind picked up and the visibility dropped to couple of meters. On a sunny day, on a good MTB and no panniers, it could have been a fun ride. But on that day, it was really tough.
I had planned to ride till Chota Dhara and camp in the same meadow where I had once camped many years ago. But I could not. By the time I reached Batal, I was really cold, slightly wet and famished. And then there was the threat of a downpour. I did not want to take a chance since I knew that seams of my tent would leak in anything but light drizzle – I figured this just one day before leaving Delhi. After lunch they offered me the luxury accommodation of a trap stretched on top of four feet walls made of loose rocks. I lost no time in accepting their hospitality.
The ride to Gramphu seemed relatively easy, compared to what I had encountered the previous day. Even though there was still no road. Any ten or twelve feet wide track of boulders, rocks, and gravel would still pass as road. And there were many more streams running on the road now. So as you climb up you not only don’t have a road under your wheel, you also have to push against water rushing downstream. All the while you have to try and keep your shoes from getting soaking wet. This is snowmelt and the water is cold. Really cold. If your cycling shoes were to get soaked, it could cause some serious trouble. Some of these stream crossings can get deep and long. There was at least one where the water reached up to my calves and I had to take my shoes off and walk through that one.
At Gramphu I was expecting to see the famous Sonam dhaba. But it was gone. The road-widening project had evicted them. They had to move to a lower location, away from the main Manli-Leh highway. I could tell that this was a low ‘foot-fall’ area. Not visible from the main highway, they had lost most of their walk-in customers – car and bike drivers, wanting to take break for a cup of chai or bowl of Maggi.
It was still early afternoon and I considered revising my original plan of staying the night at Gramphu. For once I considered the option of going further than originally planned. I knew I could be on top of Rohtang by late evening. But riding down Rohtang all the way to Manali in the dark, on a windy evening with a threat of rain did not seem very wise.
I made camp instead, and crashed early for the night. I knew if it rained heavily I might have to sit through the night to keep myself dry. I kept hearing the wind all night and the occasional drizzle, but thankfully no real rain. I got up fresh and early, made chai and breakfast, packed the tent, loaded the bike and was ready to leave by 7:00 am.
Riding up the Rohtang La was not so hard, especially once I hit tarmac. Yes, real tarmac. After a steady uneventful ride up to Rohtang I was welcomed by a hoard of parked cars and tourist riding horses and quad bikes in search for patches of dirty brown snow. I was back to ‘civilization’. But to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how much better the scene was compared to what I remember from couple of years ago. Don’t get me wrong, it still is depressing but it seems orders of magnitude better now.
It was still cold and partly overcast. The clouds would occasionally descend to the road and make it impossible to see beyond a few meters, but other than that the ride down to Manali was relatively easy.
The Johnson Cafe and Lodge offered me a nice off-season deal for their ‘standard’ room. But where I was coming from, that room seemed a grand luxury. The bed was long enough and wide enough for me to really spread out. The bathroom had a ton of hot water. I showered and showered again. I did feel clean but my body continued to be duo-toned – my arms, legs and face were a totally different color from the rest of my body.
Later in the evening when I met up with Rajan I could sense that even though his hike in Spiti was very interesting, he still was disappointed at not having finishing the ride. I could empathise, and would very much have liked him to have finished the ride. However, I must also acknowledge that for me riding solo did not turn out too badly. I really did enjoy it. I think I might even want to do it again. By design next time.
Ride stats for Nako to Manali, Himachal Pradesh:
- 317 kilometers
- Minimum Altitude: 1812 m
- Max Altitude: 4569 m
- Total Ascent: 4156 m
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