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  • Writer's pictureClotaire Mandel

Leh-Manali(ish) : a far away dream became true

Where do I start ? I've dreamed about this part of India for a while, as a world apart, nesting up there. And here is my feedback. It's mostly infos and some photos, nothing really poetic, but that can help. And mainly to help realise it's at the end not very difficult. Physically challenging, but very easy technically speaking, everyone can do it. Acclimatation : Before I start, searching for informations, all were insisting on the importance of acclimatation. Some were even mentioning weeks of it. I don't think it would be too much, and having a wide schedule avoid bad decisions and sketchy situation. Having time on your side gonna reduce your chance of feeling bad bad up there. Season : The opening of passes depend obviously on each year weather situation, but roughly between may and octobre. Then passes are covered in snow. A short window then, which allows to ride full on for a bit. About the weather, when I was there, it was fairly hot. Surprisingly hot. Although it's high mountain on a daily basis, therefore weather can change drastically and quickly. I'll take anyway beanie, gloves, buff, spare thick wool socks and a second layer of gloves made for dishes : the cheapest and potentially the best waterproof gloves ever... Quite a lot of things to say, so advises, notes and ideas would be at the end of that article.

Who has a bit of interest for ladakh knows about Leh. The biggest city of the surroundings, and also, the touristic base camp. While visiting the Leh palace, we found ourselves in front of 90's photos. Feels like buildings have grown like crazy lately. Apparently, the region who have been the center of a bollywood movie lately, draining a lot of locals up there, and now, tourists are mainly Indians. Easy when the country is over a billion inhabitants. On top of that, the world is having a new work organisation and do so more and more remote. And instead of working in Delhi or Mumbai, why not searching for the quietness of the high lands ? Anyway, it's a nice place to chill, acclimate and restock. Although I'm afraid you'll need to push further away to find a special place, quietness and spirituality.

Leh - Upshi : We asked for a permit in Leh with in mind to escape the first stretch of the highway and doing a detour to cycle around Tso kar lake. To that junction where the roads split, it's fairly easy, flat and straight forward. We follow the Indus river upstream and found camping spot without any problem. Villages everywhere, so water and food. The traffic was more quiet than expected. And a big part of it is military convoy. And whoever they are, drivers are pretty good at giving space. This is also where you'll lose phone reception, if you only had one. And you'll not gonna get anything before a place called Darcha. Upshi - Debring : That route made us go around the highest pass, and requires a permit. Nothing crazy tho, and promise, is another nice pass through here as well. Missing that pass is maybe one of the reason why most people stick on the highway. Maybe also the detour and the permit. Going up the Indus still, until the junction right before Mahe. The road is good, asphalt for a major part, and good gravel on the under construction part. Needless to carry too much food or water with a bit of organisation. You'll find homestays as well, in case you need/want to sleep inside. Cause to find a place to crash, the valley is sometimes steep and narrow, not allowing much fantasy to pitch the tent. And Good to keep in mind this region is prone to landslide, flood and rock falling. Mind your head.

From Mahe to sumdo, a perfect road in a cute narrow valley where we can camp and find water quite easily. Sumdo is a small village of Tibetan refugees. Food is pretty basic and shops in town offering the essentials and basic food as well. Although they let us camped in the village, on the other side of the river and let us the key of the toilets, in case. Adorable !

10km further, another chance to feed up in Puga, and then nothing until Thukje. Pologongka la pass in between, which sits a bit below 5000m. When I was there, a lil' stream was flowing down the mountains, perfect source of water.

We've been told the road was bad bad, it was finally quite alright. No asphalt, but nothing crazy at all. The way down was as good, with some road works that you might have to deal with, until you reach the asphalt by the lakes shore. Chances are that will be all asphalt in no times. Precious moments then ! Lights out there was fantastic, as much as the place itself. Has to be ridden to be true. With some wild animals roaming around, clouds, snow, wind, sun. A special place indeed.

In Thukje, guest house, dorms and camping possible. We found beers as well, and divers food. Here as well we felt very welcome and overall very happy to be here. From here, it's about 20km to reach the famous Manali-Leh highway on a perfect asphalt. Debring - Keylang : The famous highway. To be fair I was apprehending a bit. But from the first look over the famous highway, I know it would be special. We will spend now most of our time between 3000m and 5000m, and most of the time around 4500m. Some nights can be complex, as much as the morning awake call. It's good to organise a bit to have enough time to go down and sleep a bit lower. Problems linked to altitude can rock up quite randomly and touch everyone, anytime. So better be aware, prepare, and ready to react.

Not hoping too much in term of confort, but an amazing landscape instead. It's pretty ild. Easy to camp and dhaba everywhere, which is a sort of basic food stall on the roadside. The white ones where the Tibetan flag is floating allow most of the time people to sleep inside in exchange of a couple of hundreds of rupees. We found water quite often, and also on the side of the road from various stream and rivers. So out of a couple of litres of water and some snacks, not much to carry. Unless you want to camp and cook. Lachulung and Nakeela pass in a row, with a not very welcome drop in between that you'll have to climb back. Whisky Nala in between to eat, sleep and fill up the bottles. From there, it's all the way down through Gata loops. Probably the most beautiful roads I've ever ride.

From there we reached Jispa, which makes the border betweel Ladakh and himachal pradesh regions. People were selling that village as a big place full of hotels and restaurants. But to be fair, it was same as everywhere else, but more spread. A range of houses selling the exact same things, offering the exact same services. And that's it. K2 restaurant is where we slept and the two women managing it was our lucky choice. We passed the bridge, the checkpoint, and here we are, Ladakh is behind us already. All good tho, cause what's coming next is pretty awesome as well.

From here, it's pretty much all the way down to Keylong. The landscape was amazing from A to Z. And we slowly make our way down to 3000, trees and fields are back into life. Food changes a bit and we're finally able to get veg. And from a global point of view, way more human presence from now on. Keylong : The city itself has not much to offer, expect the view from the balcony. We will find plenty of stuff to stock up as snacks. But the road offers way more possibility to eat from now on if you're heading towards Manali. If you're heading in the Spiti valley, that's the biggest city before Kaza.

Atal tunnel or Rothang pass : If your destination is Manali, two choices : tunnel or pass. The tunnel is about 7km long and you can cycle it. You can also hitch from the start of it. Before they digged that tunnel, the only way was the famous Rothang pass. I've been in neither of those. Tunnel sounds like the easy way. But the pass is probably the more quiet one as eveyrone goes through the tunnel these days. But you'll have to climb a bit before heading down. And the road is supposingly bad.

This is where this mythical road stops for me, as we going straight, following the spiti river until Shimla.


Informations : A few informations gleaned on the way, which can help the next cyclists coming through. - As for acclimatation, a few days hike can be usefull. Mixing hiking pleasure and well needed acclimatation. - Detour through Tso kar and Pologongka requires a permit. It's doable in Leh within few hours. And better let an agency doing it. They fix it in no time in exchange of the password and a small fee. I'd recommend the Broken moon agency, managed by a cyclists who knows the surroundings well. - There is plenty of homestays, well spread. Most of them are expecting no tourists, and don't speak any work of english. So it's cool, but don't expect too much. I found it nice when the weather was chaotic and the camp spots tricky, but for the experience, with no common language, it was a bit cold and distant most of the time. - Military camps are to be taken in consideration as well. Sometimes the map can show a big settlement, but dont expect a city !

- No need to carry more than 2L of water. Between Dhabas and rivers, small waterfall and cars coming through, you'll hardly need more than that. Passes maybe, can be a struggle in high altitude, but even there, chances are you come across a stream or even just cars might help. To sleep, as everywhere else, we would rather choose a place with water nearby but if not, just carry a few more litres. Soft water tanks are perfect for that. - Roads are usually good, and asphalt is sometimes absolutely perfect. Sometimes it's more chaotic due to rainfalls. Passes are the trickiest sections with harsh weather conditions and lack of tarmac. But nothing impossible. - Big tyres. Not mandatory, but brings extra confort and suspension. - You'll loose internet connection from about Karu/upshi until Darcha. Dont even think getting wifi before wee while, even after Darcha.

- Tents on the side of the side of the road are plenty. You'll find water, snacks, food, tea. And you can sleep in most of them for about 200 rupees. - Really amazed by people's concern and hospitality. Most people coming across you will show a sign of encouragement. - To avoid having to cook (laziness, tiredness, fuel, access to dry food) it's always good to have a lunch box, to order slightly more and stock up for later. - Most of the traffic comes from military convoy. And generally speaking, most people gives heaps of space when overtaking. - Not much preparation needed ahead. Well, a solid acclimated body and a pair of decent legs indeed. But the road is straightforward and no way you'll get lost. No need to spend hours on the map to figure food and water. - Time is key. Plenty of time it's plenty of opportunities. Camping spots are heaps as well, and sometimes dreamy. Sim card : Tricky topic. Kashmir/jammu and Ladakh are working on a different network. So the simcard you'll buy in Delhi or anywhere else in India won't work. On top of that, it's difficult for tourist to get one, unless you pay a lot someone who's gonna go around the system in exchange of extra money and his cousin simcard. Only bought mine in Keylang. That as actually pretty straight forward and only cost me 500RPS. He gave me his cousin card and asked me to destroy it when I leave the country. I dont get why is so much mystery around those cards up there, maybe the proximity with the Chinese border. But anyway, you'll need the right person to do it. You got reception in main cities but don't expect anything from the 3/4 of the way. Good to disconnect tho !

That was me. I think it's about all I have to advise about. It's truly beautiful up there and happy the ones cycling up there. If you stick to the highway, organisation is easy easy. But the road allows plenty of side cuts as well if you fancy more adventure. We sticked to that kinda simple plan cause it as Sien's first bike journey, needless to go crazy. But if you go wild, then you'll have to figure out another list of stuff. But worth if for sure. If you have any question, hit me !


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