A few days back, I called my cycling partners Ranjan and Mohit to the Barista below my office for an emergency meeting, and told them that I intend to drop out of the Manali-Leh trip the three of us were thinking of going for. “I have too much work,” I said, stirring my cappuccino, and acting as if I was single-handedly pulling the advertising industry out of the slump. “Martin Sorrell needs me in this hour of crisis. I can’t be a deserter.”
“You’re chickening out,” Mohit accused me with the sensitivity of an American GI interrogating an Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib. “You’re afraid you won’t make it.”
Well, I confess the thought did cross my mind. After all, it’s not the first time I was attempting Manali-Leh. In August 2003, almost exactly six years ago, Ranjan and I had tried the route with disastrous consequences. I still get nightmares about it, often walking up in the middle of the night in a sweat raving and ranting about Baralacha La.
In those days, Ranjan and I owned Taiwanese bikes that we had bought from a cycle shop in Green Park market for Rs 2500 each. They were simple contraptions, parrot-green in colour, with local gears and no frills like shock absorbers. While we were pleased with our acquisitions, I suspect they were meant for Taiwanese children to go to school and not for disillusioned advertising professionals to climb up and down mountain passes in the Himalayas.
We had given ourselves eleven days to cover the distance from Manali to Leh, with ten days of cycling and a rest day in the middle. Between us, we were also carrying a lot of luggage including jackets, windcheaters, mufflers, monkey caps, thermal underwear, rolls of toilet paper, candles, matchboxes, flashlights with spare batteries, bottles of water, energy bars, a medicine box, a tool kit, a pump, many spare tubes, sleeping bags and a biggish tent. We were ready for anything, except possibly an asteroid strike.
On day one of cycling, we had to reach Marhi, a steady 35km climb from Manali. It’s the sort of uphill that Lance Armstrong would have knocked off in an hour, with both hands tied behind his back, balancing a pumpkin on his head. Ranjan and I took ten-and-a-half hours, five of which were spent on the bike and the rest recuperating under various trees on the way. We realised early in the trip that this wasn’t like a Sunday morning ride to India Gate.
As we approached Marhi, I imagined a nice hotel suite waiting for us, with a hot water bath running, and a note by the bedside attached to a bottle of champagne congratulating us on our remarkable journey so far. What we found was a dilapidated outhouse that was originally a pigsty and now housed drunken truck drivers and gigantic rats. We climbed in through the window (the only entrance) and spent the night on bunk beds. Truckers burped, farted and snored around us while screeching rats scurried about on the floor and scampered up and down the side of the beds (these were unlike the timid animals that you see darting around in kitchens, but monsters that probably grew up devouring pigs). Ranjan improvised booby traps for the rats, strategically strewing parts of his luggage all over the bed. I lay awake through the night, ready to jump out of the window at the hint of any contact with a rodent or a trucker.
On day two, we climbed Rohtang (13,050 feet). Though we were agonisingly slow, averaging under 5kmph, the ride was exhilarating. As we reached the top, we literally rode into the clouds. I also enjoyed the downhill that followed, touching 50kmph on my Taiwanese bike. We were very happy with our progress and as we checked into a hole in a place called Sissu for the night, we looked forward to the next days with hope.
Day three was meant to be an easy ride without treacherous climbs. But then, our cycling scripts have a tendency to rewrite themselves during the rides. Ranjan, who is a cautious cyclist (he goes downhill with the air of a man inspecting the ground for landmines), had a bad fall, aggravating an injury he was carrying on his right knee. And during our pit stop for lunch, I recklessly experimented with a local broth, the main ingredient of which was goat intestines. It didn’t do my intestines any good and I ended up with an upset stomach. By the evening, as we crawled into a town called Keylong, both of us were on the edge, snapping at each other like a couple contemplating divorce.
On day four, we were in for more nasty surprises. Ranjan’s back gears fell apart just as we started. I was aghast, but Ranjan, who is good at fixing things, cleverly put the whole thing together using my bicycle as a reference. We were delayed, though, and started late. I hadn’t eaten anything in the morning or the night before because of my bad stomach and was feeling weak. Ranjan’s knee had gotten worse during the night and he was in a lot of pain. It was a long, difficult climb and we proceeded slowly with Ranjan virtually cycling with his one good leg. Finally, at a place called Darcha, when he realised that he was doing more damage to his knee by carrying on, Ranjan stopped for good. We bid each other a tearful farewell and I decided to continue on my own.
I felt hollow cycling without Ranjan. I spent that night alone, in a dhaba in Patseo. The dhaba owner played sentimental folk songs on his two-in-one, while I sat outside staring at the stars and missing Ranjan’s reassuring company. I wasn’t looking forward to the next day’s cycling either: it included Baralacha La, a 16000 feet climb mostly through rubble, the toughest pass on the route.
Baralacha La is the sort of mountain pass that makes you a believer. Not in God, but in the devil. The secret polices of various countries have no idea of the kind of torture method they are missing out on. Forget sleep deprivation and water boarding. Put your suspect on a bicycle (preferably a Taiwanese one), throw in some 20kg of luggage and ask him to climb Baralacha La. He’ll confess to anything by the time he reaches the top.
I stopped often during the climb, panting, puffing, cursing, wailing. I wished Ranjan was there with me. There were short periods when I cycled at a steady pace, but a group of snails on crutches could have overtaken me without stretching themselves. At one point during the climb, I encountered a wild horse. It took a couple of steps towards me in disbelief, threw its head back and laughed hysterically. Then, it ran down the mountainside, no doubt to share the joke with other wild horses.
It was growing dark when I reached the top of the pass after spending over ten hours crawling up the mountain. I was scheduled to cross over to Ladakh and stop at Sarchu for the night, but as it was late and I wasn’t feeling good, I stopped at the first dhaba I came across, in Bharatpur (14,000 feet). It was well below zero degrees and I was shivering as I went to bed next to two grim-faced truckers. I tossed and turned during the night, often waking up gasping for breath.
The next day, the sixth on the bike, I did the short ride to Sarchu and made it to Ladakh. I didn’t have the will to go any further. In the afternoon, I flagged down a Qualis, put my bike on top, and continued the rest of the journey in the car: going over the winding Gata Loops, through the spectacular Moray Plains, up 17,500 feet to Tanglang La (the second highest motorable road in the world) and down to Upshi and Leh, at over 40kmph. It is, I realised, the best way to travel to Leh. Or rather the second best, the first being by air.
On the seventh day, like God, I rested. I put my feet up in a small hotel in Leh with mixed feelings: I was glad that I had done half the trip but I wished I had been braver and carried on for a bit more. Four days later, I was on a flight back to Delhi, soaring over mountain passes that seemed innocuous when seen from an airplane window at 35,000 feet.
Since then, Ranjan and I have gone on many more trips, often accompanied by our friend, Mohit. The three of us also own Treks (a well-known American bicycle brand), which are a bit more sophisticated than our parrot-green Taiwanese ones. Ranjan joined a karate class soon after the Manali-Leh trip and he is now well on the way to becoming a black belt. Thanks to his tough fitness regime, he also possesses the strongest pair of knees in Gurgaon.
The Manali-Leh trip is a wonderful adventure and I told Ranjan and Mohit that I’ll be with them in spirit as they give it a try this year. I am certain it won’t be long before I go again as well; it’s just the mode of transport that I am not sure about.