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Bicycle Diary 7: Rohtang La- the first pass and beyond

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

The [Rohtang] pass itself is broad and flat; just below its crest rises a spring which is one of the sources of Beas. Neither particularly high (by Himalayan standards) nor particularly difficult underfoot, the Rohtang is nevertheless regarded with some trepidation by local travellers on account of the unpredictable gales and blizzards to which it is subject.

– Janet Rizvi (Ladakh)

Wednesday – 23 September 2009 – 9:20 PM – Keylong

I was prepared for the broken road and a tough uphill but no – I wasn’t prepared for the heavy winds. I first noticed the winds when I got up early in the morning. Even before I had started riding I knew that it was going to a be a tough ride all the way to the top. The wind not only had force but was chilling as well. For the first few kilometers I kept feeling cold inside my thermals and jackets and gloves.

Keep going. Keep going. Only 16 kiometers. Only 10 more kilometers. Only five more kilometers. You are almost there. Cummon. Three. Two. fuck – how much more? Just one. Take rest. Relax. Yeah, now back on bike good boy. Just a kilometer. Hit the peddle. Yay – you see the top. Yay – you are there. You have nailed your first pass. You are six hundred metres above Marhi now. Celebrate!

Mai aa raha hoon Rohtang La! by you.

(Me trying to do the Khardung Rohtang la Top – the first pass in the route – do notice how fucked up the road was)

Once at the top, I noticed that the road had suddenly turned into a tarmac one and was as smooth as black ice. I was like – wow, I get to slide downhill over this butter of a road? I was like fucking delighted. Before I rolled down, I had a look around. It was sunny by this time and the winds had stopped. I could see thin layers of snow on some of the adjoining hills. Very thin layers. And then I could see tourists wearing snow clothing and gum-boots going crazy over such thin layers of snow! I mean this was fucking hilarious! Wearing gum-boots for walking over half an inch of snow? WTF! Wearing over-coats in the sun! I thought they were crazy. I moved on.

Rohtang La by you.

(The road that suddenly turned incredibly awesome once I reached the Rohtang Top)

I moved on and I soon realized that that sudden impressive smoothness of the road was a cheap trick. The road was shining and smooth only for as far as it could be captured in the cameras of tourists roaming around the Rohtang top. We might not keep the entire stretch smooth but let us make sure that no one who sees pictures of Rohtang Top can ever guess what one has to go through to reach there. Fucking smartasses. I mean, even I had gotten a picture of myself clicked standing in the middle of the tarmac road at the top. It had looked so beautiful. And now it was gone. Back to pebbles. Back to gravel.

This was my first experience of a looonnng downhill and even when the road was not as smooth as I thought it was going to be, the mere fact that I didn’t have to peddle at all was a great relief.  It was fulltoo downhill all the way till Koksar – 20 kms from Rohtang and the lower I descended, the better became the roads. To a cyclist who has climbed up an ascent for the last two days, there is no greater gift than a ride down a slope where he never has to peddle. I repeat – there is no greater gift. I felt almost like I was gliding. Free. Liberated. Rewarded. I could feel free to look around and adore the stunning landscape. This portion of Himachal appeared to be a cross between Meghalaya and Ladakh. Both lush green mountains and bare brown mountains rose in perfect harmony! Pretty weird and enchanting.

Water falls and wheels move by you.

(A random waterfall during the downhill from Rohtang La)

Water falls and the wheels move and the fucker poses by you.

And the road never ends by you.

(The lower I descended, the better became the road)

After a hot chawal rajma at Koksar, I wondered if I should call it a day. It was only two in the afternoon but I wondered so because I had this feeling that Koksar was supposed to be the next destination after Marhi as per my original plan. My original plan! I had forgotten to take a copy of my planned itinerary with me and suddenly I had no idea what were the places where I had planned to halt during my journey towards Leh. Was it Koksar? Was it some other place? Shit, I couldn’t recall.

The restaurant owner told me it was down all the way till Keylong. He told me I should go till Keylong because Kylong was the only real town between Manali and Leh and it was only 45 Kms away.

While the going is good, keep going – I told myself.

DSC_0069 by you.

(While the going is good, keep going)

I was about to leave the restaurant when a South African who had reached there from the other side and was headed towards Manali, wished me all the best and asked me to be careful at a point that I would have to cross soon. ‘You will have to lift and carry your bike in your hands there because the bridge is broken and a river flows over the road’ – he informed me. I was like – hmm. I wasn’t sure if the going was good anymore but I rolled on anyway. I hadn’t descended even a kilometer when the road disappeared beneath a river.

The South African had obviously exaggerated the whole thing. I mean, yes, there was no way I could cycle through the submerged road without falling but I definitely didn’t have to like lift my bike and all that. I undid the bags, hung them on my shoulders and then took off my shoes and socks. One thing that I had learnt from my previous Ladakh trips was that – you never ever let the freezing water wet your shoes and / or socks. Once they get wet, they kill your feet. So with bags over my shoulders, I crossed the river walking bare-foot, rolling my bike along. In the half minute that I might have taken to do this, the feet felt so cold that I had to wait for full ten minutes before they felt normal again, warmed up in the sun. Good fun.

I continued and so did the downhill. Soon I was at Sissu, now 50 kilometers away from Marhi. Keylong was a good 30 kilometers away. And this is when I realized that the downhill had suddenly ended. Shit. I needed to peddle. And then I had to keep peddling for the next 10k. Fuck the restaurant owner!

To my relief, the uphill was gradual and was finally followed by a downhill till I reached Tandi. Keylong was only seven kilometers away now. Yay – I was almost there. It was here that I asked a truck-driver sardarji to click a picture of mine and he did a pretty cool job with it. I had cycled 73 kilometers by now and sun was shining on my face.

Longing for Keylong by you.

(Picture taken by the sardarji truck-driver at Tandi)

The last seven kilometers, unfortunately,  went uphill again and by this time I was kinda fucked up to cycle anymore. So I started to alternate between cycling and walking and what seemed like eternity I finally reached Keylong! Phew! Keylong looked a lot like Leh itself. It was like a crammed down version of Leh with a tinge of Himachalism thrown in. 80 Kilometers! Not bad yaar!

Phone is working for the first time after Manali. I just received an sms from Neelabh. He wants to know how I am and how far I have reached. I think it’s too early to communicate with the world that I have left only few days back. I would get back to you Neelabh. But not now. Now is not the time. I am too tired to write anymore. I need to sleep. See you in the dreams Neelabh.


Thursday – 24 September 2009 – 7:30 AM – Keylong

Yesterday was a tiring day and I am wondering if I should just stay in Keylong today.

I am sitting in my hotel’s restaurant as I write this. I was discussing my cycling plans with the manager. He told me he was proud to see an Indian cyling here – ‘so many firangs come and cycle, but hardly anyone from our own des does’.I told him I wasn’t carrying any itinerary and had no idea where all to break my journey to Leh. He helped me in formulating a plan. This is what he has recommended:

  • day 1: Keylong to Patseo (45k)
  • day 2: Patseo to Sarchu (45k) with Baralacha La pass in between
  • day 3: Sarchu to Pang (75k)
  • day 4: Pang to Rumtse (50k) with Tanglang La – the highest motorable pass in between
  • day 5: Rumtse to Upshi
  • day 6: Upshi to Leh

This itinerary is kinda odd if you ask me. Firstly, I am very sure there are four passes between Manali and Leh. Rohtang is the lowest of the lot at a little less than 4 kilometers altitude. So where is the one missing pass? Secondly, as per this time-line, if I leave Keylong today, I would end up reaching Leh by the coming Tuesday itself! I might have forgotten my original plan but I do remember that I was supposed to reach Leh only by Thursday (with Friday and Saturday kept as buffer days in case of any unforeseen situation). How come the time-line has suddenly shrunk? Something’s fishy here!

Now that I will reach Leh much earlier than I had thought initially, I think I should do a Leh-Khardungla as well. I had never thought about it before but now that I think of it, I don’t see any point in not doing it. Wouldn’t it be awesome to ride your bicycle to the highest motorable road of the world where air is only 50% as dense as at sea-level? Of course, it would be! 🙂

Complete links for Diary#1-13: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

PS: Yeah, you guessed it right – I was vella at work once again. 😛

PS2: Following is good dope on the route that I covered – loads of info and history and trivia (as found in Zanet Rizvi’s book – Ladakh) – yes, I typed it out 😛


Although Lahul, the district which the road now enters [after descending down from Rohtang Pass], is not actually part of trans-Himalaya, since the Great Himalaya remains to be crossed, it lies in the rain-shadow of the Pir Panjal and the view ahead could well be a trans-Himalayan landscape. In contrast to the lush green forested slopes of the Kullu valley to the south, the traveller is confronted with a vista of treeless mountains, culmination in snow-covered peaks and ridges stretching away as far as the eye can see. Upper Lahul consists of the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers, both of which rise in the great Himalaya, close under the Bara-lacha-la, but flow off in opposite directions looping around to meet near Keylang, the district capital, and flowing off to the north-west as Chenab.

From the Rohtang, the road hurtles down into the valley of the Chandra, which it follows in a north-west direction to its confluence with the Bhaga. The villages are quite different from those of Manali. The Kulu style with its deep wooded verandahs and sloping roofs of slate or shingle gives way to a more Tibetan manner of architecture; the houses with their small windows are constructed from adobe bricks or stone cemented with mud, often whitewashed, and with flat roofs for storing winter forage for the livestock. This style of dwelling will soon become familiar in Ladakh. Although Lahul’s political history has been a chequered one, sovereignty over it being claimed at different times by the rulers of Kulu and of Ladakh, its cultural links were mainly with Ladakh, and its general ambience forms as good an introduction to Ladakh as any.

In the days of the traffic in grain and wool between Kulu and the high-altitude pastures of Ladakh and Tibet, the Lahul people profited from their situation mid-way between the two end-points of the trade by acting as carriers. The excellence of their horses was remarked on by William Moorcroft, the first European to traverse the route. Since the discovery about a century ago that conditions in the district were ideal for growing potatoes, the farmers no longer confine their operations to subsistence agriculture. Seed potatoes are a cash crop that can be raised sustainably, year after year, and have brought enormous prosperity to Lahul; most of the fields in the oasis villages that the road passes through are devoted to their cultivation. The high-altitude pastures of the Pir Panjal and the Great Himalaya’s southern flank are the summer destination of the transhumant Gaddi shepherds, part of whose trek to and from their traditional grazing runs may take them along the motor roads. The picture as a convoy of vehicles jostles for way with a flock of several hundred sheep and goats can be better imagined than described. The shoving and thrusting as the vehicles edge their way through, the shouting, the excitement; the Gaddis themselves, Biblical-looking in their rough woollen homespun girdled by a rope wound round and round the waist, often carrying a lamb or a kid in the pouch of their tunic; it all adds up to a scene of good-humored pandemonium, which at the same time represents a collison between the modern world and another, archaic and timeless.

Crossing the Chandra at Khoksar, the first village, an unlovely straggle of shacks and tea-ships, the road remains on the right bank, its line contouring along the mountainside high above the water. Near the confluence of the two rivers at the village of Tandi, it crosses the muddy and turbulent waters of the Bhaga to its left bank, and starts to rise again, following the river up to Keylang, the nearest thing to a town the traveller will see till Leh, still 360 kilometers away, is reached.

8 replies on “Bicycle Diary 7: Rohtang La- the first pass and beyond”

I’m really looking forward to your next 2-3 post. Would really like to know your experience in Pang. Had been there around the same time with friends and one of them had trouble breathing in the night :mrgreen:

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