The route [to Leh] from Manali, which crosses four passes, three of them are over 4800 metres, is open for no more than three-and-a-half months, from the end of June to mid-October. For almost half its length it passes through terrain so high and so barren as to have no settled habitation. There is a minimum of infrastructural support along the way, and travellers planning their journey should aim to be self-sufficient in food, warm clothing and, for travellers in their own vehicles, repair and survival kits. Buses and trucks go in convoy; individual travel should also be in groups, preferably using vehicles with a four-wheel drive. There are no repair or service stations between Keylang and Leh, and no petrol supply, so the party whose vehicle breaks down have no resources but their own to fall back on. On a road running for 200 kilometers [Keylang-Leh] at altitudes of over 4000 meters, such precautions could mean the difference between life and death.
– Janet Rizvi (Ladakh)
Monday – 21 September 2001 – 5:20 PM – 20 Kms from Manali on the Manali-Leh road
Let me begin with a loud ‘Fuck’. FUUCCKKK!
And this is why – right now, I am sitting in the open, under the Himachal sky, on a hillock just over the road to Leh, sheltered by the concave edge of a rocky portion of the hillock that’s jutting out from the grassy base. This rock makes an acute angle with the ground and if it rains in the night, I hope to be protected. Yes,Â I am staying here for the rest of the evening and the night. The first place where I find accommodation is still 15 kilometers away – completely uphill – and I am too tired and too exhausted to cycle anymore.
Hills and mountains are in all directions. I can see at least two sets of waterfalls. I also see sheep – mostly white but few blackies as well – scattered like tiny dots at the lower altitudes of the hill right in front of me – separated of course by a wide chasm. The sheep are grazing and I am scribbling. I guess the sheep would continue to graze till the sun sets. I would continue to write till the sun sets. I would love it if the stars shine tonight. But before I sleep, let me tell you about today’s story.
The bus disgorged all passengers in Manali sometime before ten in the morning. The bus journey didn’t have any hiccups. Mr. Mahindra wished me good luck for my trip as we parted ways. I didn’t really have a plan when I got off the bus. I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in Manali for a day or if I wanted to start riding right away. Ideally I should have rested in Manali to acclimatize. I will tell you why.
Bhubaneswar is about 30 meteres above sea level, Indore about half a kilometer above and Delhi somewhere in between at roughly 250 meters. When you go up in the air, the air gets thinner. Imagine air to be a collection of 1 litre Bisleri bottles spread both along earth’s surface and towards the sky (for the sake of convenience of your imagination, you can assume that these bottles are all cubical in shape – and fit one over the other). Now, if you pick up any bottle placed at sea level and observe that it is full up to the brim, then if you try picking up a bottle from somewhere higher up in the air, you will find this new 1 litre bottle has lesser water! To be precise, a 1 litre bottle picked up from a place that is located half a kilometer above sea-level will have only 94% of water that a 1 litre bottle at sea-level has.
The good thing is that we don’t really notice this decrease in the quantity of air (and hence oxygen) till we are at least 2 kilometers above the sea-level.Â At 2 kilometers above the sea-level – which is approximately what the altitude of Manali is – the air is only 80% as dense as that at sea-level. My first destination from Manali, on route to Leh was to be a small village of Marhi, sixteen kilometers before the Rohtang Top and only 35 kilometers away from Manali. The only problem was that Marhi was further higher up in the air – at 3.3 kilometers above sea-level. Here the air was going to be even thinner – 70% as dense as at sea-level. This is why, ideally I should have rested in Manali for a day to allow my breathing to get used to air@80% first before rushing up and exerting myself with physical work so soon. But I guess, I was just too excited in the morning.
The moment I was off the bus, I assembled my bike. In spite of the rough handling of the bike at the various airports (Bhubaneswar, Delhi and Indore), the bike felt alright. When I started assembling inside a tea-shop at the bus stand (outdoors was too glaring for the eyes), the shop-owner didn’t really appreciate the idea of an over-enthu dude using his premises early in the morning just when his first set of customers were stepping foot inside. My order for a six rupees chai didn’t prevent him from openly expressing his disapproval of my mechanic-giri inside his shop. I told him I wouldn’t take more than ten minutes. Later as the clock ticked over and above the ten minutes deadline, the curiosity of his customers with whatever I was upto as well the interest shown by one of the owner’s staffs himself, eased out the owner. The front wheel, the handles and the peddles were finally fitted back to the rest of the frame. The tyres were then inflated at a near-by puncture-shop and yay – I was all ready. There was a problem though – I had no idea how to carry my bags. I didn’t have any bungee chord or rope and before I could buy some, I needed money. With only thirty nine rupees in my pockets, I was off on my mission to find an ATM.
Manali is a small town with only three or four ATMs. Only one worked for me and that blessed ATM happened to run out of cash just when I was about to get rich again. It took me two hours to finally secure 10k. I cycled a lot in the town in these two hours and was kind of tired. I guess I needed a regular sleep on a regular bed. Buses have never been too comfortable to me and the weight of the bags on my shoulders was definitely not helping my case. But a part of me was just not willing to take rest. A bungee chord was soon bought and then the bags were finally fastened to the rear-rack. And then I left Manali.
I think the town was too small and I didn’t know how I would have killed time there had I decided to spend the rest of the day in Manali. The fear of the lack of acclimatization was not too threatening. After all, Marhi was still 300 meters below Leh. I had comfortably walked around in Leh immediately after flying to the town from Delhi earlier in May this year. But then cycling uphill is thousand times more difficult than walking around in a town, however high the altitude be, and soon I got fucked.
There were few places immediately after leaving Manali where I could have stayed but they came too early in the day. After about ten kilometers of uphill, there was no place where I could stay till I could reached Marhi. And suddenly with all my exertion, Marhi seemed so fucking far far away. With every peddle, the air got thinner, I got more tired, and the day further approached its end. Even the whole concept of air getting thin at high altitudes aside, the uphill itself was merciless – 1.3 Km further up from sea-level in just 35 km of ride is tough slope. It simply hurts.
It kept hurting, my speed kept coming down but I kept cycling. Finally, I just stopped. I couldn’t go on any more. The last thing that I wanted was to get inflicted with AMS on my first bicycling day. AMS stands for acute mountain sickness and it can be lethal. It usually happens if you gain too much altitude in too little time and becomes serious if you are exerting yourself physically.
Many a times I haven’t known what life is all about. But on days like today, when I feel like a character straight out of Discovery or NatGeo, I pretty much realize what life is all about. For food, I only have 2 bananas, 1 apple, an unsealed packet of Glucose and few sachets of Electrolyte. For water, I only have half a litre of Bisleri. For roof, I have sky which I only hope doesn’t start pouring in the dead of the night.
The sleeping bag that bro got for me is awesome. It’s extremely soft. Sitting over it, I almost feel like I am sitting on my guest-house couch (to know how awesome my guest-house couch is, buzz Misre).
My only fear are animals. I don’t know how far the next village is. I do know that the last village is more than five kilometers away. The area is mostly jungle. For my defense I have a lighter and the detached saddle of my bike which has a metallic pipe – you come near me – I shall light the lighter and hit you with the saddle. So you don’t come near me.
Too tired now – good night.
PS: Here’s a picture of mine at the place where I crashed off in the open on my first bicycling day.