The start of Leh to Manali
Gary woke feeling a lot better, I on the other hand had an awful nights sleep and felt knackered.
Gary; I was in pool of sweat in the night and dozing from midnight, not the best prep for the trip.
We had breakfast in one of the many German bakeries and I downloaded some books to our kindles.
It was downhill out of Leh and the roads were very busy but tarmaced. We stopped after a couple of miles for some provisions, Gary was still feeling queazy so I went to the store, to call the shops stores is a little generous they’re more like kiosks and the person serving in each of them had no English and after establishing they had no cold water I had to walk down the street to the next kiosk. The locals were amused at the sight of a middle aged lady in her lycra, I was pleased to be back on my bike. We have seen other females in shorts and teeshirts but I do feel a little unsettled travelling in my cycling gear in India.
As we left Leh and the shops we cycled into Indian army territory, lots of army vehicles passed us and soldiers were guarding buildings. We pulled over at one building to take a picture of a war memorial and a soldier with a gun came over and shook his head and hand at us, in a manner not to be ignored. We later sore a sign forbidding us to take pictures in the military area.
Talking of signs there are signs all along the road, some inspirational like ‘keep going’ or ‘you only get out what you put in’ that type of signs and some public health messages ‘don’t drink whisky it makes you drive risky’ and ‘know aids, no aids’ and one Gary and I found amusing ‘love thy neighbour but not when driving’ , I particularly like ‘curvacious go slowly’ and ‘curves take it easy’ I didn’t like ‘don’t gossip let him drive’ – bloody cheek!!
At Upshi we were stopped by the military for a passport/visa check we took this opportunity to have some lunch, banana pancakes and pepsi. The road up to Upshi had been fairly easy, although it was very hot at 40c+. We considered staying at Upshi but it was very early in the day and thought we could reach the next big town before night fall.
Gary; our voices were weird like we had been sucking on helium balloons and our throats were vey dry.
The road from Upshi increased slightly in gradient, but no more than 6% but mainly 4-5% but the altitude made it feel much harder . At about 5km outside of Lhato, I really started to struggle, I found it increasingly hard to get my breathe, I had a stinking headache and was feeling nauseous. All the signs of altitude sickness. We crawled along stopping at every kilometre mark finally making Lhato at about 6.00pm. We checked into a guest house as we were both exhausted and cold (19c). Gary checked the height climbed and we had exceeded the recommended 1000 feet climb.
Gary; the climbs were not steep but the effort required was amazing, you ended up puffed out and with jelly legs. There was a small town but it had no where to stay, the next one was only 7k away how hard could it be – answer, very hard.
The room we had was very basic but I couldn’t have cared less, Gary persuaded me to get changed into dry clothes and I laid down on the bed for some much needed rest, Gary kindly put the quilt over me and I rested until dinner.
Dinner was Vegetable Dahl, rice and chapatis, served in a dining room set up for approx 12 people. The tables were on the floor and the seats were cushions, see photos. Our hosts were lovely and tried to make conversation with us. I was really tired so most of this was left up to Gary. We retired to our rooms before 8.00pm and no sooner had my head hit the pillow than I was asleep.
Woke feeling a bit better, but I still had a slight headache, Gary did suggest staying another night at the guest house, but it really was very basic and there was nothing to do in the immediate area other than perhaps going for a walk. After discussing our options we agreed to cycle until we got tired or hit the next 1,000 feet mark and stop for the day. I found the going hard, at the 8km mark we stopped and had a drink and some cake, but when we stood up I nearly keeled over, I felt extremely dizzy and short of breathe. We agreed to stop for the day, as it turned out we had climbed 1000 feet. Poor Gary was left to put the tent up on his own, I had no energy at all, I think if I’d tried to stand up I would have collapsed. Sounds a little extreme, but I really didn’t feel well. Once Gary had set up the tent he proceeded in cool me down and this was done by putting wet, cold towels over me, I was sweating profusely, not a pretty sight. We did consider going back down to the guest house but once I had cooled down and rested I was just left with a really bad headache and breathlessness. Interestingly once Gary had stopped running around after me, he also realised he had a headache.
Gary; Ginete was in a bad way, she was very pale and struggling to breathe. I selected a camp to sit out the day, she wouldn’t have been able to ride back down. This involved taking all the panniers off and carrying a little way onto a small platoux at 13656 ft. we had good views up and down the valley and was close to a running mountain stream. I had to make several trips soaking the towels to nurse maid Nets overheating body, the temperature was around 40 degrees and we had no shade.
On a positive note we got to use the water filter and used this in a stream not far from where we had camped.
During the course of the day, a number of vehicles went by and honked their horns, a boy walked by with a herd of goats and an old lady came to the tent to have a conversation with us but we really didn’t know what she wanted, but she put me on edge, I wasn’t sure whether she was warning us about some impending doom.
We spent the day reading and playing cards, in the evening we tried to start a fire but couldn’t find our matches and our woodcrafting skills failed us.
Gary; as the day went on Ginette improved, although after the fire lightning attempt I also had a headache from all the blowing.
Dinner was noodles tomatoes and green pepper cooked on the omni stove, this works really well and I had no problem boiling he water.
The wind was picking up but the ground was hard and tent pegs firm so no worries about being blown off the mountain.
We had an early night with the intention of setting off early in the morning.
Day 94 Road Trip
Woke really early, we had both had a restless night and still had mild headaches. We again considered our options and agreed to move onto the next town and if necessary flag a lift up to the top of Tagalong La (second highest mountain) Whilst packing up the tent, I sore a pack of wild dogs running on the field opposite us, I was a little nervous and was pleased they were running in away from our camp site. I needn’t have worried as Gary went down to the stream for fresh supplies of water the dogs turned up at the tent, they were mildly curious but timid of humans. Unfortunately for the cows, the dogs had not read the manual that cows are sacred in India and they proceeded to chase two small calves down the road.
Packing up the tent took a lot of energy as we had pitched the tent some distance from the road. What would normally have seemed like a simple task of walking bikes and panniers up a small hill felt like a mammoth effort, working at altitude makes all tasks a lot harder.
The next town called Rumtse turned out to be less than 1km away, so we easily reached that destination and agreed to continue cycling until we felt tired.
Gary; Maybe this is what the local lady was trying to tell us last night?
We felt pretty strong and thought we would be able to make it up the 30km climb to the top but with 19km to go it was clear we were not going to make it as we would still have had a further 65km to go to reach an altitude that we could stop at.
Gary; we were having to stop often to stabilise our breathing and heart rate, we were some where near 15,000 ft.
Ginette – As we were discussing our options I could see a flat backed truck coming up the hill, we agreed to flag it down. Inside the truck were two men and on the flat back were two older women and a man. They kindly agreed to give us a lift to the top of the mountain so that we could cycle down to Pang. As we climbed the hill in the truck we had no regrets that we’d thumbed a lift. The mountain was steep in places and unpaved which would have made it difficult to cycle with our bikes. As we neared the top the two old ladies (Tibetan looking) were dropped off with some baskets/bags, we’re not sure what they were going to collect but we waved them goodbye as the walked down the mountain.
At the top we got off the van and gave the driver some money. We posed for the compulsory photo, Gary said he felt a little guilty but as I explained we were not claiming to have cycled all the way up and as we were the only cyclists we had more to brag about than those posing that had got off motorbikes or our of cars. Whilst at the top we bumped into Gary’s friend Amit Bharowaj, who was travelling with his girlfriend and it sounds like it can be hard going on a motorbike as the roads are in a pretty poor state, but I didn’t get the feeling that the altitude was such a big problem.
There wasn’t a lot at the top of the mountain, other than a sign and a lot of flags and some run down buildings. We didn’t stop long, but long enough for one of the locals to offer us sweet delicacy, I sore Gary’s face as he tasted it and agreed to share his helping. It was very sweet, gooey and made with coconuts.
We were looking forward to the ride down to Pang, it started off well, a nice tarmac road, but this soon disintegrated into a gravel, pitted road which was hard going on the bikes. We had hoped for an easy ride but it was really jarring on the body and you had to really concentrate on where you were cycling so although the views were amazing we didn’t get to enjoy them as we were ensuring we stayed on our bikes. On the way down we met several other cyclists that were doing the reverse trip to us Manali to Leh and had far less luggage. One cheeky chap suggested we read someones blog re travelling light. We quickly pointed out that we were cycling to New Zealand and intended to be on the road for a year. But he had a point to complete the Leh to Manali highway it would be so much easier without the weight we were carrying.
By early afternoon we reached a town called Debring and had a tea with Gary’s friend from the guest house, although he was on his motorbike he was not travelling very fast (probably due to the road conditions) and had factored in longer breaks. Debring was very small with only a handfull of parachute tents, the woman who greeted us spoke no English but was really kind and attentive, when Gary led down on the cushions the woman kindly got him a cushion for his head.
Gary; We were both very tired and hadn’t eaten since the small bowl of cereal we had in the morning (you cant count the dopple of gunk given to us at the top) this shady town would have been the ideal place to stay the night but it was at approx 15800 feet so well above what was recommended to climb in a day to avoid altitude sickness.
Gary was really suffering, with the heat, headaches and general tiredness, I still had my headache and felt tired. We checked the altitude and although we wanted to stay we decided we needed to go lower to decrease the pressure on our heads. On the map this looked fairly easy, we only had a further 40km to do and it was only 2pm. However we had not factored in a strong headwind and rain as it had been sunny when we left Debring. We also made the school boy error of not eating or drinking enough. We had eaten some cereal for breakfast, stopped for some cake on the way up the mountain and had only had some black tea and hot water in Debring. Neither of us had an appetite since our tummy bug in Leh, and as we didn’t feel hungry or thirsty we did not eat or drink anywhere near the volume of food and drink needed to cycle in the himalayas.
Gary; the 40k ride through ‘homer’ plain (name of the area) started well, the road did climb for most of the way but a gradual incline, we knew that before Pang it dropped rapidly. The condition of the road was better as it was now Tarmac.
Our problems started as the wind picked up. by the time we reached the drop to Pang we had to battle the sort of head winds we experienced on the top of Irelands mountains. I was having to stop at shorter intervals to gain control over my body, my heart rate was racing, my breathing struggling and my legs turning to jelly, I was very demoralised. To top this off the wind had brought the temperature down to 9 degrees.
Ginette – We arrived in Pang at 6.30pm, we had stopped several times on the way from Debring and had to dig really deep to keep going. We had hoped to stay in Pang for a couple of nights to let our bodies recover but on arriving in Pang it was clear this wasn’t really an option. We stayed in a guest house, which was a corrugated shed with rugs on the floor and walls. This was the executive option the first room we were offered contained a number of low beds and would be occupied by 5 other males! There was nothing to do in the area it was like a Himalayan truck stop.
We quickly got changed as we were wet and very cold and went to the restaurant (another shed) for some lovely tomato soup and hot water. Neither of us could face anything further to eat and agreed to get an early night. Although we had a double bed it did not look very comfortable so we unpacked our camping gear and placed that on the bed to sleep on. There was no heating in the room so we used the extra blankets to keep us warm. Sleep came easily but trying to stay asleep was hard work, firstly because I still had a really bad headache, secondly the light in our room (a light bulb hanging down) did not have an off switch, it was controlled by the main generator and would only be turned off when everything else was turned off and finally because their were several men playing with their exhausts fumes felt like they were filling the room until the wee hours as their vehicles were immediately outside of our shed/room.
Day 95; Mon 7th July, Pang to a mountain top by oil tanker.
Needless to say I woke feeling lousy, my head felt worse than it had the previous day, Gary took one look at me and declared I looked awful (charming!). I could hardly open my eyes, but knowing we couldn’t really stay in Pang, I put on my cycle clothes and some over clothes for breakfast but when Gary said he was going to the restaurant I realised I couldn’t eat a thing, I felt really nauseous so we agreed I would get some more rest (the light in our room had come on at the crack of dawn) and Gary would get some breakfast and see what our options were for the day. He’d not been gone 5 minutes when he declared he’d sorted us a lift to Manali. We quickly got our kit together and threw it onto the top of an Indian oil carrier, the bikes were strapped down and we were encouraged to climb in to the elaborate cabin (pictures on the wall, mirrors on the walls, decorated ceiling and lots of charms hanging from the window). I would have shown some enthusiasm if my head had not hurt so much. I had somehow negotiated (with the help of the lovely lady who worked/managed the restaurant) a fee of £16 and we were informed we would arrive in Manali that evening at about 8-9pm. On Gary’s suggestion I also purchased some water, biscuits and crisps from the restaurant, the choice of supplies was limited and I definitely didn’t feel hungry.
The driver was a sikh and had very little english and his co driver (man with no shoes) had no english at all. We proceeded to make our way to Serchu at a very slow pace, the roads were in an awful condition, the vehicle had no suspension and Gary and I were buffered around like rag dolls.
The scenery was spectacular we were surrounded by snow capped mountains but it was difficult to enjoy them as we were holding our breathes from the terrifying experience of being in a cab which was struggling to stay on the road. The roads were really narrow and even though they were in really bad condition, vehicles would over take at speed and would be forced to cross each other at what ever opportunity arose, this would not have been possible without a support driver looking out of his window and shouting how close to the edge the driver was. At times we were scarily close to the edge, to the point that both Gary and I were really worried.
Gary; I thought the two were both drivers to share the trip, but no. the sheik did all the driving while the smaller Indian chap spent a lot of his time with head out the window shouting instructions on how close to the cliff edge the oil tanker was when passing other traffic on this mainly single lane track. I gather we were pretty close when his shouting and gesticulation became more agitated (which was pretty often).
I have taken a couple of videos, especially for my childhood friend Cliff Wilder who is / has been a tanker driver.
There is no doubt that this drivers job must be one of the most dangerous in the world.
Ginette – In Serchu we again ran into Gary’s friend from the guest house, I was not in a conversational mood so stayed in the cab whilst Gary had a cup of tea and a wee. Our next stop was in a town called Darcha we didn’t appreciated this was a lunch break (no-one told us) we had no idea of the time or the agenda for the day. We thought it was a toilet stop and as neither of us needed the loo we remained in the cab. We reflected on the fact that we had not had any breakfast so had a couple of digestives and a packet of crisps each. When our driver and his mate returned we had a further delay because there was an issue with the bridge we had to cross, we think it had a hole in it and we were pleased we would not be the first to test the repair as there were several other vehicles in front of us. When we reached the other side Gary had to got to the police control point. It was really chaotic, the clerk was hand writing all of the passport details and visa details of and foreign nationals, all the locals had to give reg number, phone number, name and DOB. As there had been a long delay there were a lot of people wanting their details processed and the que a non extant mob . I stayed in the cab, by this stage I figured we only had a couple more hours to go, I could wait until we got to Manali, to go to the loo and get something to eat and drink. When Gary returned he was out of breathe, it took a lot of energy simply getting out of the cab, walking across the road and getting back in the cab. Whenever I looked at him it reminded me we had a virus, as we were not being physically ill, it was easy to forget that we were not well, but the fact that we had spent all day in a cab, without getting twitchy, not eating and basically sitting still speaks volumes.
Gary; after Dacha the terrain started to change from bare rock to greener hills, it was starting to get pretty again. as this was my thoughts then I must prefer the green type mountain hills to the barren rocky type.
At about 8.00pm we stopped and the driver spoke to us for the first time (other than to ask Gary to present our passports) and asked if we would like tea. We agreed it would be good to get out of the cabin, it was already getting dark and I needed a wee. We stopped in one of the restaurants for a cup of tea thinking the driver and his mate might join us but I think they were doing a blessing on their vehicle. During the day they had stopped to purchase a bottle of water and stopped again to place this at some shrine/flags, this must be a common practice as there was a mountain of plastic water bottles at the side of the road. They’d also lit some incense sticks as the sun went down.
On our way back to the vehicle we found our driver and support driver in the restaurant opposite the one we had, had our tea (again I am using the word restaurant very generously) they were having something to eat and invited us to do the same. Although we didn’t feel hungry we agreed to have some vegetable dahl, mutton dish (which turned out to be a bean dish) and some chapattis. The food was excellent and only cost the equivalent of 50p. As we were ordering the driver suggested we sleep the night in the village and set off again in the morning because it was dark and to use his words the road was ‘crappy’. We agreed, as mentioned before the roads were really awful and the thought of driving in the dark over the mountains did not fill us with excitement. However no sooner had Gary arranged a room and a translator so we could agree times to meet in the morning than the plan had changed and we were going to Manali a further 120km away. With heavy hearts we set off (again without finding a toilet).
The road conditions were treacherous, at times Gary and I held onto each other for dear life. It got to a point that I could no longer look out of the window, for fear that I would scream ‘stop the truck I want to get out.’ Instead I settled myself down and closed my eyes and thought happy thoughts about the kids. It was amazing how many special memories I have of them growing up, I really should visit them more often. During the course of the evening the driver and his ‘mate’ seemed to be having an animated conversation, I think they were reciting some religious passages to each to keep awake but Gary thought the support driver was just talking a lot, it was hard to tell as we didn’t understand a word they said.
As the evening wore on I was aware of the vehicle pulling over and the support driver getting out of the cab, I am not sure if he was checking the road or talking to one of the other truck drivers who was following our vehicle. At approx 11.00pm it was agreed that we would have to stop for the night and sleep in the cab! I had looked at the road just before we stopped and you could not see anything out of the window for fog, and our support driver had his head poked out of the door shouting to the driver where the road was.
Gary; the night time drive was a nightmare, and a bad decision although he must do this trip often and in the dark the conditions were deteriorating as it was raining and visibility was poor. There were still trucks cars and bikes racing past us in the distance I don’t know how they could see! We were up in the frozen snow line and in an instant we struck by fog.
The two tanker convoy which was us still tried to continue, the co driver now had his head constantly out of the window and they were inching there way along the track, when I thought they had give up, the second tanker overtook to see if he could lead the way, in the end comment sense took over, I prompted the driver to say we should sleep here and I think this helped as maybe he thought we would be upset to stop.
Ginette – Gary and I were both relieved that we would be sleeping in a cab with a stranger on a snow topped mountain in the middle of nowhere rather than driving onto Manila. The support driver slept in another cab, the cabin was only just big enough for the three of us. The driver must have been knackered because within minutes of the cab lights being turned out he was asleep and snoring really loudly. We had to suppress our giggles, could it get any worse? The answer to that is yes, I still hadn’t had a wee and our sleeping bags were not accessible so we had to make do with coats and jumpers to keep us warm (Did we mention we are in the snow line?).
Gary; I reckon this days trip would make a good comedy movie.
Ginette – on a positive note there were no noisy dogs up on this mountain lol.
Day 95 road trip continued
Another restless night, I was cold and spent most of the evening finding a space where I was not being kicked or pushed or poked, there was very little room and the sound of the Sikh snoring didn’t help.
I was grateful when the sun came up so we could set off again, (still no where for a girly to wee). As the sun rose we could see the landscape had changed and although it was still very mountainous it was much greener than the previous day.
Our support drivers role other than ensuring we didn’t fall off a cliff whilst negotiating bends and crossing vehicles was to look after the driver. This included giving him a special drink, not sure what this was but he had used a pestle to grind down some herbs/spices, passing him his tooth brush, so he could brush his teeth whilst driving! cleaning the windows and anything else the driver required. I was amazed at the amount of times the drivers hands left the steering wheel completely to do simple tasks like moving his turban, I wanted to shout ‘keep your hands on the wheel’ in fairness compared to some of the other drivers he seemed to drive very cautiously and although I didn’t trust the road, I trusted his driving skills.
The driver and his mate were clearly very religious and superstitious, (I would be if I had to make that journey on a regular basis). More incense sticks were lit as the sun came up and I think there were more religious readings quoted to each other but again as we did not understand them I couldn’t confirm this was the case, they may have just been having a very animated conversation. I got the distinct feeling that they were not friends but colleagues, at the restaurant the previous night although they’d sat at the same table they did not talk to each other. Therefore an animated conversation would have been out of place, it also felt very one sided, the driver or his mate would recite a long passage and the other would respond with one word answers almost like yes or amen.
Gary; I don’t think they were praying at all, just gossiping but we will never know.
There was a stark reminder of just how dangerous the road was, at one of the many hairpin bends a lorry was precariously leaning over the edge of the cliff, we didn’t stop to see if the driver was still in the vehicle, I can only imagine this was because our driver had already been informed of this accident by one of the other drivers we had passed on route. The drivers would exchange information when passing, again as I don’t know what they were saying I can only presume it was about the condition of the road.
Gary; they didn’t need to shout at each other as by the time they had manoeuvred to pass each other the cabs were only inches away from each over.
It had rained in the night and was still raining when we set off this was not helping the condition of the roads,which in parts seemed to be swept away by the rain and a number of waterfalls that had formed due to melting snow. On a number of occasions we had to drive through very deep puddles and cascading water I was relieved I was not on my bike because not only would my feet of got very wet but the road condition in these areas was particularly bad.
As we neared Manali we saw more and more tourist vehicles and motorcyclists (during the course of the whole journey we only saw about 10 cyclists and only three that had full panniers, one couple and a man travelling on his own). Gary and I reflected how difficult these vehicles were making it for the vehicles that needed to make the journey to take resources from Leh to Manali. There appeared to be lots more tourist vehicles on the Manali side of the highway and we can only presume that the local tourist companies offer 1 day sight seeing trips along the highway. We had considered at one point cycling out of Manali to the Spiti Valley but as we would need to use the Leh to Manali highway we changed our minds. The stretch from Manali up to the Spiti Valley was not only in a poor condition but was really busy with tourist vehicles (almost back to back). It was interesting to see the number of roadside vendors selling/hiring retro (very worn) snow suits for tourists to buy/borrow. We had seen a number of tourists stopped by the roadside having their photos taken in their retro suits.
Gary; Rob Britton has a colourful one pice that would fit in well.
Ginette – Most of the tourists appear to be from India, we saw very few westerners on our trip across the highway.
We finally arrived in Manali at about 8.30am, unloaded the bikes and were relieved that they’d survived the road trip unfortunately a couple of the bags had come open so the bedding and tools were wet and we had lost a water bottle but as the whole trip had only cost us £16 and a lot of grey hairs we weren’t complaining.
I am glad we have come to this area it is a wonder to see, and not all good. I am disappointed we couldn’t cycle the route. looking at the others that have achieved this there’s no reason we should have struggled so much. however our bodies did fail us, maybe we set off too soon after being ill, maybe our information about the altitudes we needed to stop at was wrong, I am sure as time goes by I will realise my failings. however the trip in the Oil tanker was an experience not to be missed, or should I say never to be taken? it certainly wasn’t safe. for now I am glad this episode is over and I hope that I don’t dwell on it in the future other than to relish the “Adventure” as Ginette and I call the bits which are a little bit iffy.
The Himalayas are amazing the size and colours are hard to describe, it seems like a really hard lifestyle, people live in really basic conditions, it is hard to imagine what their lifestyles are like when the road is closed off, which it is for 8 months of the year.