This is my first ever blog. I had always wanted to write about my first 50k cycling which I did at the age of 56 and half marathon at 57. However I never got around to it due to sheer inertia. This time I was determined that I should not allow any more excuses to come in the way. Through this blog, I also want to encourage other adventurists to try this expedition. It is an incredible test of one’s physical ability and endurance. And if I could do this expedition at the age of 64, they can too!
The idea of doing the Manali-Leh-Khardungla (MLK) expedition germinated in my mind when I took part in the Jalori pass cycling expedition organised by the Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI) in May 2019. Then Covid happened and all outdoor programs ground to a halt. In May 2022, as Covid was under control, I got the urge to participate in some programs of YHAI. I noticed they had planned to do the MLK expedition in July 2022. As there was a lead time of 2 months to prepare, I consulted some who had done the program and they encouraged me to go for it and also gave valuable tips for training.
I called the cycling officer, Shashank and he too encouraged me saying that if I can cycle uphill for 3k continuously on the lowest gear, I should be able to complete the ride. From him, I also learnt that the registration for the MLK program will remain open for another 4 weeks or so. However, I decided not to wait and registered immediately in May and booked my air tickets to Manali and return from Leh, lest my mind may develop second thoughts. I also informed several of my friends about my plan to ensure that I remain committed to this program. Now there was no turning back! I began to train sincerely to be ready for this adventure that was to begin from 15 July at Manali.
My training program:
I was advised to do a couple of 100k rides, perform planks, lunges, squats and other strength building exercises. I was also suggested to ride to the Nandi hills.
Since I am not a regular cyclist, I was determined to train so that I am able to cycle at least 4–5 hours a day. My mental calculation was that if I can cycle for around 5 hours at an average speed of 10k per hour, I should be able to comfortably complete the daily average ride of 50k in MLK.
I cycled on the road for about 2 hours in the morning and used the gym cycle on the hill mode for about 1.5 hours in the evening. Thus I was able to cover about 70k of cycling each day. I also did my squats, lunges and other leg strengthening exercises twice a week.
End of June, YHAI arranged a zoom call for all participants to discuss the MLK program. During the call, the field director informed us that all those who do more than 100k of cycling regularly will complete the MLK trip easily. Those who do 50k will have challenges but will be able to complete it. This was a big morale booster for me! He also told us to do climbing in top gear while standing to enable us to prepare for the tough hill ride. I religiously followed this advice and I must say that this part of the training really helped.
While I was not able to go for the climb of Nandi hills, I was confident that I had trained well. The absence of the Nandi hills ride however did occasionally raise doubts in my mind.
During the training Nirav Patel, a triathlon champion from my housing society who had also done the Manali-Leh cycling, reviewed my progress at various intervals and gave me valuable feedback for improvement. My sincere thanks for all his support and advice.
Manali — Leh Cycling Timeline:
I took the HPRTC bus from Chandigarh airport on 14 July and the bus reached Manali only at 11 am instead of 6 am due to landslides on the way. Not a great way to start. There were 87 participants of which 8 were women. More than 60% of the participants were from Maharashtra, mostly from Pune/Mumbai. Of the 8 women, 5 were from Maharashtra and 3 from Karnataka. At 64, I was the oldest among the men. Among the women it was a brave 67 year old woman from Mumbai. We spent 3 days in Manali for acclimatisation.
Our picturesque campsite at Manali
We were 8 people in a tent and being the eldest, my tent mates ensured that I had a comfortable time and were very helpful to me.
There was a test ride of 8k today to the nearby Naggar castle. The field director told us that the ride to Naggar castle is to test the preparedness of the participants. He asked us to complete it without taking a break. At the end of the ride, he told us that those who completed the ride in 45 minutes will find the MLK ride easy and those who completed it in less than an hour will find it a little difficult. I completed the ride in 52 minutes and that too without a break. That ride boosted my confidence.
All set for the test ride
Today was a rest day. We roamed around the campsite and relaxed.
My amazing tent mates — (L-R) Ramanujam, Swapnil, Nilesh, Swadhin, Monti and Pinaki on the banks of Beas
The first day’s ride was one of the toughest as we were to cycle 49k to reach our campsite at Marhi (3360 M — Metres above sea level) and in the process, gain an elevation of some 2200 M. We were to carry only our warm clothes (in case of downhill ride), rain pants and shirt (in the event of rains) and lunch on the cycle. Rest of our luggage used to come in a truck. We had an ambulance with a doctor, 4 volunteers to cycle with us and 2 mechanics on a motorcycle with tool kits and water cans, accompanying us.
Everyday our sumptuous breakfast and dinner consisted of eggs, idli/poha/chole bhature/chapatis, vegetables and sweets. For the ride, we were given a packed lunch and a goody bag consisting of biscuits, chikki, juice, dry fruits and candies.
The route was quite scenic with waterfalls, small villages and green landscape. I started at 7.30 am and reached Marhi at 5.30 pm. During the ride, my max heart rate was 154 bpm. I decided that I should not strain myself too hard and ensure my heart rate does not exceed 140.
Every evening, there was a medical camp when the doctor addressed the health issues of the participants.
Started from Marhi at 8 am and reached Sishu (3100 M) at 2.30 pm, a distance of 50k after crossing Rohtang pass (3978 M). It was a steep ride for 17k till Rohtang pass, downhill of 19k to Koksar and thereafter it was a mild up and down road. The river Beas originates near Rohtang pass. There was thick cloud cover upto Rohtang leading to poor visibility. There was a possibility of rain and hence, we did not stay long at Rohtang pass. Though no effort was needed when we were riding downhill, we needed to be very careful as any mishap could be quite serious if not fatal. Maximum accidents happen when going downhill! While climbing, my speed was 5.5 kmph and on the downhill, it was 20–25 kmph. Many enthusiastic participants in the group reached speeds as high as 60 kmph on the downhill ride.
The campsite at Sishu was by the side of Chenab river with a beautiful view of a waterfall.
On the way to Rohtang pass
First major pass on the way to Leh
Started from Sishu at 8 am and reached the camp at the Mountaineering Institute, Jispa (3200 M) at 3.30 pm. It is a distance of 54k. It is an ok ride with no big elevation or downhill ride. However we had to negotiate convoys of army trucks on narrow roads along the way. Since we had been told beforehand not to expect any facility to take bath during our 10 day ride, our joy knew no bounds as we found that the Institute had bathroom facilities with hot water. The simple luxuries of life!
Waterfall at Shishu
Started from Jispa at 8 am. We soon lost mobile connectivity and did not have any till we reached Rumste on 26 July. Though I had a postpaid Jio connection I could get a signal only in a few locations and none at our camp sites. I reached Zing Zing Bar (4270 M) at 4.30 pm, a distance of 35k. It was a slow and steady climb to reach this place.
On the way, there was a water crossing. Fortunately there was not any rain in the previous 2 days and hence the water flow was less so we could cross it without much difficulty on foot. A few energetic ones even cycled through the water without falling into water.
During the ride, I met with an accident but luckily escaped unhurt. I was going behind a truck on a downhill slope. At a turn where the uphill started, there were multiple large potholes. The truck was not able to climb and started moving backwards and hit my cycle toppling me over. Due to the potholes, the truck’s reverse movement was very slow and I could move away to the side of the road. However, my cycle went under the truck between the rear wheels. My cycle’s front wheel was damaged. After our mechanic repaired the cycle I resumed my ride. Quite a scary experience.
We stayed at one of the dhabas in Zing Zing Bar as there was no facility to pitch our tents in that location. Many started developing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the doctor put them on medication. From this point on, everyday, we started seeing a few participants withdrawing from the expedition for some reason or the other.
Resting on the way
At Deepak Tal lake on the way to Zing Zing Bar
The spot where we needed to cross the water on the way to Zing Zing Bar
We started at 8 am and reached Sarchu plain at 4.30 pm covering a distance of 40k. We had to cross Baralacha pass (4892 M). On the way is Suraj Tal lake which is the origin of Bhaga river. Once I crossed the pass, the weather turned bad and started raining. As there was no place to take shelter, I had to continue cycling. After a while, I could see some dhabas and took shelter till it stopped raining. It was the only time I was caught in the rain as I usually did not stop at any place for long breaks fearing rain which generally starts after 1 pm. It is for this reason, I did not click many pictures. Many of the pictures that I have posted in the blog are from my fellow participants. Many of the others not only got caught in the rain but also hail-storms. They were enjoying this expedition in all its glory!
Suraj Tal on the way to Baralachala
Second pass from Manali, Baralachala
On the way to Sarchu plain
On the way to Sarchu plain
Started at 7 am to reach Whisky Nala, a distance of 50k. It was one of the toughest rides and hence we had a special briefing on what to expect and how to handle this stretch. It is the only day when YHAI had arranged refreshments at 2 places to ensure that we are well supported for this toughest ride. After some 30k of riding, we would reach the start of Gata loops (4201 M) to negotiate 21 loops over a distance of 8k to reach its end (4667 M). As you start climbing, you will see trucks above you in the higher loops and below you in the lower loops. Even before I could savour my achievement of negotiating the Gata loops, the next climb of 10k to Nakeela pass started. What made this stretch even tougher was the long convoy of army trucks using the narrow road. I was so tired that I almost gave up. I however cobbled up my last bits of energy and finally made it to the campsite at Whisky Nala at 6.30 pm. My tent mates had been worried as I never reached any campsite so late and were relieved to see me.
Somewhere on the Gata loops
At Nakeela pass at 15547 ft
Campsite at Whisky Nala
At our tent — The 8 Strong! : L-R: Monti, Shantanu, Swapnil, Nilesh, Swadhin,Ramanujam,Pinaki, Amrith
Today, we had the easiest ride of 29k to reach Pang after crossing Lachung pass (5019 M)
On the way to Pang
It was a 43k ride mostly on the plain road to Debring via Morey plains. On the way you could see shepherds taking their herd for grazing. Debring was very windy and we had a tough time to ensure that our tent was properly closed to protect us from the wind.
At Moray plains
L-R: Monti, Saurabh, Ramanujam, Pinaki, Swadhin
L-R: Swapnil, Ramanujam, Nilesh at Morey plains
On the way to Debring on a flat road
Another tough ride of 53k awaited us today as we were to cross the second highest motorable road at Tanglangla pass (5329 M). Somehow I did not find this stretch tough compared to the ride crossing Gata loops and Nakeela pass. Once we crossed Tanglangla pass, it was a smooth ride till we reached Rumtse. While Rumtse had mobile connectivity, there was none at our campsite which was located on the outskirts. We had to go to the village to speak to our family after several days.
Camp site at Rumtse
We had rain in the morning and hence we could leave for Leh only at 8.30 am. It was a long ride of 78k mostly on a downward slope except the last 8k when we had to climb in the hot sun to reach Leh. On the way, first time in Ladakh we could see a number of villages where local people were engaged in agriculture. We crossed multiple landmarks: Upshi — a large town before Leh, Thicksey monastery — a majestic 12 storeyed structure built in 1430 AD and Shey monastery and Palace. The ride became very tough once I reached Choglamsar around 3 pm. It was very hot and the road had no trees. There was also a lot of traffic on the road as His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town. It took me almost 3 hours to complete the last 8k .
It was a huge relief once we reached Leh as we had good toilet and bathroom facilities. Back to civilization at last!
Today’s ride was so tough that I decided (in hindsight very wisely) to skip the next day’s ride to Khardungala and back (82k)
Breakfast at Campsite, Rumtse
Farm lands on the way to Upshi
A village on the way to Upshi
With Nilesh on the bridge across Indus river near Upshi
Thicksey monastery on the way to Leh
Those who opted to ride to Khardungla were to start at 4.30 am and the cut-off time to reach Khardungla was 3 pm. However, owing to rains that day they started only at 6.30. By now, 7 participants had withdrawn from the expedition. Of the 80 left, some 50 odd started for Khardungla but only 4 participants could reach it. The remaining had to return midway due to rain and snowfall.
I was to leave on 29th July but due to bad weather all flights were cancelled for the day and I could reschedule the flight only for 1st Aug. So, I rested and chilled out in Leh.
My tent mates — L to R — Monti, Pinaki, Amrith, Ramanujam, Nilesh and Shantanu on the Mall road, Leh
When I look back I feel amazed that I could complete this expedition without any health or physical issues particularly when many youngsters who were regular cyclists gave up. The many hours of training that I put in was clearly worth it. For cyclists, this expedition is the ultimate one as it tests one’s mental strength as much as it does one’s physical endurance.