With some regret I cycled away from Keylong. I could quite happily have stayed for longer but the weather and bicycle would not let me. We set off mid morning along the lower road picking up mutton momo, indian sweets and mangos from local shops. A little climb out of the town to rejoin the highway and then down into a left curve. The road went East past the confluence of the Bhagu and Chandra rivers.
The road continued alongside the combined river of Chandrbhaga past the towns of Tandi and Thorang. In time we began to climb again as the road ran on a ledge high above the river. A driver stopped his vehicle to warn us of potential rockfalls from the cliffs above us.
We stopped for a thali and delicious thick honey pancake at Sissu. Once again the plan was to get as close as possible to the Pass and camp. Past the settlements of Damphug and Khoksar the road began to wind slowly upwards. We camped just beyond the dhabas at Gramphu. Clouds clung to the mountains and the road disappeared above through a long series of hairpin bends. It began to rain.
I awoke early the next day, cooked breakfast and began the long ride up towards the pass. The sky was clear and the sun began to heat up the road. Although at just under 4000 metres it was not the highest pass to cross it was to be the most difficult and longest climb. Rohtang literally means ‘piles of bodies’ and refers to the number of people that had died having been caught by the extreme changes of weather that can occur there. The road surface was fairly mixed with some sections reduced to rubble. Luckily, and as with the journey from Leh as a whole, the weather held up and the morning sun lifted the clouds away from the summit of the Pass. It was slow hard work and I rested about halfway and waited for Joachim but could still see his tent pitched far below. Once at the top and close to a Buddhist stupa I met an English cyclist heading to Leh on his Trek expedition bicycle. . I asked him to pass a message to Joachim that I was going to continue on past the summit and begin the ride down the other side towards Manali. The Rohtang La itself was extremely busy and crowded with Indian tourists many of whom were on day trips from Manali to visit and play in the snow.
The road down from the Rohtang pass was in a bad way. Extreme mud made the going difficult. However once past the initial few kilometres it became a smooth fast road leading down and joining the Beas river running towards Manali. At just 51 kilometres from the Rohtang La Manali, the final destination, was easily reachable before nightfall.
It was a great achievement to have completed the 11 day cycle ride from Leh to Manali but at the same time I was a little sad that it was over. It had been the bike ride of a lifetime and felt so, so lucky to have had the opportunity to make this trip.
With an early start the crisp blue sky and warm sunshine provided perfect cycling conditions. The ascent was less demanding than anticipated. The Baralacha pass levelled and the road stretched out. It felt as if we were cycling across the roof of the world. The road then curved and dropped down past the beautiful Suruj Tal lake.
The road then cut through a rock formation and snaked down into an open valley. It was quite a transition from the naked rocks, ice and snow into the fertile landscape of the Lahaul Valley. The easy passage across the pass seemed too good to be true. We had anticipated a rough hard ride through a bleak unforgiving windswept landscape and instead had been treated to a relaxed journey up and across stunning ‘arctic’ terrain and then down into a warm green valley. Brilliant.
The road dropped further and further and the vegetation improved to include bushes and conifers giving the scenery an alpine appearance.
We reached the encampment at Zinzingbar for morning tea and then went on to the dhabas at Darchu in the Zanskar valley for lunch. We passed through the pretty villages of Rangyo and Jispa before the road climbed and hugged the hillside above the valley. The road became a tough stony track as it fought past high rock faces. Occasionally it turned to smooth asphalt and provided exciting drops down through fast switching turns. It was like cycling in the Italian alps with scenery to match. There was still the occasional fast moving river to cross before the road finally reached Keylong.
Keylong is a fairly sizeable town with a bustling town centre. It is a place of pilgrimage with an important Drukpa sect Tibetan Buddhist monastery on the opposite bank of the Bhaga river and several other monastic institutions nearby. The murmuring sound of monks chanting at the Kardang monastery floats across to the town early each morning. With the amalgamation of Spiti and Lahaul districts Keylong has become the administrative centre for the area. It is well placed geographically with three major valleys converging at the spot. As a town it has a good atmosphere, relatively unspoilt by tourism and regards itself culturally closer to Ladakh than India. This is much evident in the people and their customs. The town is cut off by snow for almost 6 months of the year with supplies and access by helicopter only.
I decided to stay an extra day in Keylong before setting off again for the Rhotang La. Keylong is an excellent place to visit and enjoyed exploring the town and surroundings a lot. We took an evening meal at the hotel Tashi Deleg. It was one of the best meals I ate during my time away.
The quick decent from Lachulung La via the Gator Loops was exhilarating. The 21 ‘loops’ twisted down and provided an exciting ‘white knuckle’ ride. The road surface was very good although the hairpin curves were a little broken up. Once at the bottom I stopped and marvelled at the ride I had just experienced. Awesome.
Once again the scenery had changed. The road ran on a wide ridge alongside a fast river within a big valley. A rough track leading down towards the river looked promising. The grassy ground was ideal for camping and there were tents further along the valley. The tents belonged to nomadic horsemen. Early the next day they moved their horses and donkeys out along the valley towards the Gator Loops.
The valley offered spectacular scenery. We got as close as possible to the next pass and camped. The weather was less kind. it was cold, wet and very windy. I managed to find a fairly sheltered spot in a rocky hollow sandwiched between a lake and a fast moving river causing problems for bikers.
The weather in the morning began poor but then the clouds lifted over the pass. It took a bit of effort to cycle up but the icy scenery was spectacular and took us past the Nakee La pass.
At this altitude it was quite cold. The warm summer sunshine made all the difference between a comfortable temperature and brass monkey weather.
We took shelter at the seasonal camp of Bharatapur. Grey clouds hung heavy over the Baralacha La to the South. At night the dhabas doubled up as chilly dormitories. Thick layers of quilts were provided. Outside the surroundings looked bleak and the ground froze.
It took around twenty hours to reach Leh by road. This included a few stops for refreshment. It was an incredible road trip which tested the vehicle and the skills of the driver.
I had booked my place early and had snagged the front seat. I watched the road carefully and considered the degree of difficulty I would experience cycling back. The road conditions were seriously bad and was amazed that a minibus could cope with the flooded rocky roads. All kudos to the driver who had been doing the route on a regular basis for over 6 years and knew it like the back of his hand. I enjoyed the luxury of being driven but felt a little guilty having scotched my ‘green’ copybook.
We were delayed at one point where the road had given way to fast moving water and mud. Vehicles were queued and a fair few people, in typical Indian fashion, stood and watched a lorry with its wheels spinning and sliding in the mud.
With a little coordinated effort there was a way for us to get through. By getting the passengers off, putting rocks under the rear wheels and enlisting the help of other drivers to push we were able to get past. Using this method we managed to get three minibuses through.
I was amused at the Israeli tourists that finally conceded to remove themselves off one minibus to lighten its load. They had summer sandals and flip-flops. Some looked like they were dressed as Rajasthani herdsmen with baggy trousers and matching hats. They did their best to avoid getting mud on their ethnic attire and gingerly tiptoed ahead past the problem. I think they would have been horrified at the thought of actually helping to push a vehicle through mud.
Having backtracked to a village to drop off an elderly lady we arrived in Leh in darkness. It took a little while to reorganise my luggage around my cycle panniers. Somewhat cold, tired and disorientated I struggled to make my way up a steep hill away from the bus station. It was pitch black. Eventually I found my way to a dirty looking room at the Indus hotel and gratefully fell in to a coma.
The ride to Mandi was incredible. Once again and after a fair amount of hill work I was treated to a superb run down into the riverside city of Mandi. It was just as well since the temperature was unusually high. Mandi itself is not terribly interesting but a focus for traffic in every direction. The cheap rooms I viewed close to the central sunken garden square were very poor. Having finally viewed one that smelled like the worst kind of public toilet I opted to ‘splurge’ out on the Raj Mahal hotel. It was still time to recover from my traumatic experience at Bir and the secure comforts of the old palace helped assuage my anxiety.
Mandi has many beautiful Hindu temples by the riverside. I took a long walk that took in the island which divides the river and circled the city back to Victoria bridge. I dined like a king in the the old palace hotel and decided to head for the tourist playground of Manali. Time was on my side and I needed to get out of the heat.
The towns of Bir and Billing provide a destination for paragliders. Every year visitors compete in world championships and enjoy magnificent views as they soar above the Himalayan Dhauladhar mountain range.
Bir is also home to a large Tibetan community which includes several monasteries and a beautiful temple. Strictly speaking it is the village of Chaugin rather than Bir which has become a second home for Tibetan monks and families. The outlying area of Kangra provides good farming land and is characterised by large tea plantations.
I took a short walk around the grounds of the temple, looked in on monks seated in the hall and saw butter lamps being cleaned outside. I then went a little further down the road to the Garden Cafe at Palden house for dinner.
I was struck by the beauty and serenity of Bir and was keen to stay and explore for a few days. I returned to the Garden Cafe the next day having failed to find accommodation. Another visitor to the cafe; Jessinta directed me to an Eco Village (Namlang Himal) nearby. They provide cheap rooms for ‘volunteers’ in a tumbledown flat above a row of shops.
During my two days at Bir I visited a monastery, spent time sitting with metal craftsmen fashioning religious items and enjoyed time chatting with Jessinta who was engaged in a buddhist course at the temple. We tried walking to the American run Dharmalaya buddhist environmentalist centre but realised it was a lot further away than imagined. However it led us across fields and to bump into a retired Aussie/US real estate manager outside his home. He had set himself up in a rented modern building on farmland to live semi permanently and had settled into the ‘good life’. He had become a vegan and practising buddhist. His sour dough rolls and salad were delicious. He was keen to see my bike as he too had a Surly back in Oz. We arranged to all meet at the Garden Cafe for lunch the next day.
The hot weather continued through the next day. Northern India as a whole was experiencing record breaking temperatures. Once again I visited the temple and took a short stroll past fields of tea. After a local takeaway meal with friends at the flat I retired for the night. Sadly a burglar awoke me in the middle of the night and after a flurry of activity he left empty handed. I was somewhat shaken by the violent encounter and packed to leave the next morning. I was offered alternative secure accommodation at the Tibetan run Palden House. An extra two nights there and then I fled Bir. It was not exactly the personal oasis of peace and calm that I had anticipated. I warned local people about the armed intruder and contacted the British Embassy with a view to creating a few red flags. Some local business people including the French owner of the ‘eco village’ were not exactly enamoured with the idea of involving the local police. Appearances are deceptive. Back on the bike into the heat and dust….
The last few days at McLeod Ganj were good fun. An Italian chap called Stefano had moved into the next room and we hit it off quite well and talked for hours. We visited the Lung Ta Japanese restaurant for lunch and took a short hike to St John’s in the Wilderness church. Stefano is a good photographer and shared some great pictures from his trip. On the Sunday Stefano set off for Amritsar. I packed up and left early the next day. In the process of loading my bike some git (and I think I know who) stole my binoculars. Nice. This happened whilst I was paying my hotel bill. The hotel owner gave me some seeds in a small packet to carry and which he said would protect me from danger on the roads.
It was a bloody hot day. The region was experiencing a record breaking heat wave. I rode down towards the plains and turned onto highway 17 east. The road bobbed up and down through the foothills. Occasionally it was through pine forests but consistently it was hard work up through arid rocky ground. I passed Palampur and then the shrine or mandir at Baijnath. The heat of the day got to me. The temperature was in the 40s. I was well hydrated. No amount of stopping helped. My heart pounded on the slightest exertion and started playing jungle rhythms. I realised that it would no longer be wise to cycle during the main part of the day. By late afternoon I found a scruffy hotel just past the turning to Billing and called it a day.
As has happened on so many occasions with main road hotels I was the only guest. The hotel was made from concrete, barely finished and the room was filthy. I recall reading a little about the Tibetan settlement at Bir so I set off uphill to see what that was all about and see if I could get something half decent for dinner.
Dharamsala at Kangra consists of several quite different smaller districts: lower Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, Forsyth Ganj, Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Although all are set closely together around the central forested hill and apex of the Dalai Lama temple they are remarkably unique in character.
It is a sprawling combination of different ethnic groups, businesses and seasonal visitors. The Tibetan settlement at McLeod Ganj with the associated Buddhist temples and monastery dominates the area. BhagsuNag to the East provides a busy and somewhat congested Indian resort. Visitors are attracted to its waterfall. It has an ancient shrine devoted to Shiva and rebuilt following the devastating earthquake of 1905. To the North is the Judaic settlement of Dharamkot. This leafy suburb is infused with therapeutic centres catering for discerning visitors. The roads and buildings are built to a high standard. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Hampstead village in London. It has many beautifully situated ‘trendy’ restaurants and cafes and retains a certain charm that attracts the more discriminating visitor.
On its West side is the Tibetan centre for performing arts, a meditation centre, forest Stupa and regional centre for mountaineering. Forsyth Ganj lies much further to the West and is connected to McLeod Ganj by a busy main road. Along this road lies St Johns Church with its typically British cemetary and where many servicemen and their families are buried. To the rear of the church is a memorial to Lord Elgin who was Viceroy and Commissioner to India.
There is, in my mind, a clear division between the areas in terms of ethnicity and reminded me of certain areas of North London where I used to live. The lower area is predominately and typically mainstream Hindu Indian. Beyond this area and some way up the steep hill McLeod Ganj has been transformed by tourism and the Tibetan community into a modern cosmopolitan world. ‘Little Lhasa’ or ‘Dhasa’ represents the Tibetan government and capital in exile with a matching infrastructure and is an important place for Tibetans everywhere. Monks pass through the streets clutching their prayer beads and the latest smart phones. There are a multitude of hotels, restaurants and shops many with an ‘alternative’ and ethnic theme. It is a good place to eat Japanese or Tibetan food, sip herbal teas and align your chakras before enrolling on a course for meditation and yoga. The resort is the perfect destination for ‘new age’ tourists, pseudo-intellectuals, artists and writers. For the hipster sons and daughters of the well heeled it is also a very cool place to relax with other travellers and smoke a little dope. I also get the impression that for some visitors their main spiritual satisfaction is from bottles. There is a constant stream of wealthy international tourists seeking to awaken their spiritual consciousness and improve their health. There is, naturally, a deeply seated resentment by the indigenous Indian population particularly of the Tibetans.
All of these areas are seasonally transformed into the equivalent of a busy city by rampant tourism and is reflected in escalating values. The road traffic is awful and totally at odds with the small narrow streets of a British 19th century hill station. The temperature is pleasant and offers a relief from the burning heat of the Indian summer.
The surrounding terrain offers excellent opportunities for trekking into the mountain ranges to the North. It is also quite the perfect place to enrol in spiritual or therapeutic courses. Many people find work there as teachers or volunteers. There is a real wealth of local services focussing on most areas of healing and health issues. It is big business and prices have risen rapidly in recent years to meet the increasing demand. General shopping is expensive and items often priced higher than their European equivalents. It seems as if items are loaded with a tourist tax. On the up side there is a good availability of foods and products.
Further afield surrounding forests and mountains provide a wonderful and magical refuge from the human jungle. My room provided a comfortable pied a terre at the fulcrum of McLeod Ganj or Dharamsala. However it was noisy (dogs and car horns), dusty and suffered a little from its busy central position. The countryside beyond the inhabited suburbs of Dharamsala provides real peace and serenity and which is, rather sadly, becoming lost from the whole area with the increased traffic and unbridled development.