Let’s define “epic,” shall we?
Epic: adjective I ep·ic I \ˈe-pik\
- Extending beyond normal or ordinary
- A work of art
The decision to ride a bicycle 561 kilometers across any terrain is, I think we can all agree, a bit beyond normal or ordinary- it’s not exactly a piece of cake.
But having embarked on this massive journey from Manali to Leh myself, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is the second part of this definition that makes it a truly epic adventure.
To cycle from Manali to Leh is an absolute work of art, and I mean that in every sense of the word.
Art is beautiful. It stirs something inside of you, provokes new thoughts and perspectives. Art tests you, challenges you to break out of what you thought you knew about your world and about yourself. And at last, as you stare at a painting, your heart opens a little more than it ever has in the past and you feel a rush of appreciation and understanding.
Now imagine riding your bicycle 11 days through that type of experience- no longer a canvas hanging on a museum wall, but everything around you: the lush green of Manali, the alien desert lands of Ladakh, the towering mountains dotted with monasteries and temples, all filling you with awe, all testing you mentally and physically…
The adventure from Manali to Leh is undeniably epic, so let’s see what the top ten works of art are along its path that make it that way.
10. Gata Loops
These guys will give you a run for your money on Day 7. Twenty-one hairpin switchbacks snaking up a Ladakhi mountainside will wow you with their matrix-like view and (literally) take your breath away on your way up to Lachulung La Pass from Brandy Nallah.
9. Keylong Gate
A welcome splash of color following a long day’s ascent, the Tibetan-style gate greets all travelers as they enter the village limits of Keylong on Day 4. Stop and admire the intricate paintings and symbols of the gate, but if you have time, don’t miss a little detour into the village itself for a delicious snack of momos and conversations with the locals outside beautifully-carved Buddhist temples.
8. Rohtang Pass
Your first test! Remember how I said art will challenge you? Rohtang is your first taste of a major cycling ascent on this journey- climbing 18 kilometers to its 3,980-meter tip, but man, is it worth it. Prayer flags glitter in the wind, framing the snow-capped ranges now visible from your proudly-earned vantage point, the Beas Temple (legendary source of the Beas River) sits peacefully, its pundit waiting within its domed walls to bless you, and of course, your snowball fight awaits at this snow-powdered pass.
7. Descent to Sissu
What comes up must go down, and you are no exception. Perhaps the best reward of your Rohtang Pass victory is the jaw-dropping, 30 kilometer ride down the other side of the pass into the Lahaul Valley. The wind in your face and wide open mountain ranges on your effortless ride down is not something easily forgotten.
The cherry on top? Try to find the hidden waterfall tucked into the forest once reaching your camp for the night at Sissu.
6. Tso Kar
This campsite is truly one-of-a-kind, and has a treat in-store for you if you’re willing to spend just a few more minutes on your bike at the end of Day 8. Four kilometers below your home for the night, the lake Tso Kar quietly waits for visitors. Its crystallized sulphur beauty matches its oddness, seemingly very out of place amidst this cold desert of Ladakhi mountains. Catch it in peak sunlight for an unforgettable click reflecting the snow-capped peaks resting behind it.
5. Tanglang La
Alright, you’ve survived Rohtang Pass, Baralacha La, Lachulung La and Gata Loops- time for art to test you once more on the world’s second-highest motorable pass, Tanglang La at 5,360 meters. Let the Mars-like landscape and towering sand sculptures of Jammu & Kashmir win over your heart like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as you push yourself up… and up and up some more. Celebrate the grand view at the top with dhaba chai and a photo in front of the stunning, prayer flag-adorned temple.
4. Tanglang La Descent
Another hard-earned, truly gorgeous chance to soar down the mountainside. For the first time in days, you return to the green freshness of the treeline after cruising through the snowy, harsh isolation of the higher ranges.
3. Khardung La
Simply a massive test of human will, mental fitness and courage- this is Khardung La, the grand finale of your adventure and journey on cycle to the world’s highest motorable road @18,380 Feet (or so it used to be, once upon a time). The real art on this day is what happens inside each cyclist- the realizations, breakthroughs and self-confidence that are mined from this experience. Simply no second-hand explanation will do.
No one talks much about Lato and I’m not sure why. It’s truly spectacular.
This is your last campsite before your first night in Leh, and it looks like a fairytale... on Mars. Strangely jagged cliffs jut above you as you coast down from Tanglang La, old, mysterious monasteries crumble from a towering height, pearl-white Buddhist stupas dot the green riverbed, where foliage battles the altitude to regain its strength along the health-giving river. If you have time before settling in for the night, a sightseeing walk at sunset is an absolute must.
1. Morey Plains
What a place like no other- sincerely a world of its own. After climbing 5 kilometers from Pang, this 40-kilometer stretch begins...and never ends.
Unbelievably flat, this land plays tricks on the eyes and the mind, winding forever through the thundering mountains that flank it in the distance- it’s almost a form of meditation to cycle through- a peaceful endlessness.
(and of course, a prime opportunity for photography shenanigans with your cycle mates)
So now you know what is waiting for you saddle up your cycle on the Manali-Leh adventure.
I hesitate to say that because it is so much more than can ever be put into words- so much that will only touch your heart when you see it for yourself.
But of course, that’s how art works anyway, isn’t it?