This is the story of how a distance of 480 km took us three days on a motorbike on one of the toughest terrains in the world. Yes, you read it right, the Manali–Leh highway in Northern Himalayan region of India is one of the toughest terrains.
Biking Manali Leh Highway
Four of us started with two Royal Enfields. Three of us could ride and we all took turns. The only traffic here is the occasional Indian Army trucks and other soul-searching wanderers who are also willing to test their will.
We started this adventure to ride what is claimed as the highest motorable road in the world. In this remote region, the phone connectivity is unheard of and you have to enter your details at every check post to let them know you’ve survived, to tell the tale. To live another day.
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The Ride: 480 KM in 3 Days
It was around 1 in the noon, when we had to stop riding. The tire was now wobbling beyond control. We couldn’t prolong it anymore. 12 spokes were broken. And we were in the middle of nowhere.
Our friend’s bike had gone ahead. We were wondering what to do next when we saw a bike coming from the opposite direction. Delighted we stopped him, asking him if he had seen our other rider somewhere ahead. He had, but almost an hour earlier.
No way of contacting the other bike, no towns spotted in the vicinity, and with no other riders for as far as we could see. This was not looking good. This was not how I had planned my bike trip to go when we started 3 days ago.
They said it would take us three days to do it. We had rented our bikes in Manali, filled them up with fuel, carried extra fuel in cans and off we went.
We knew the roads could get brutal, the climate could turn any moment without notice from warm sunny mornings to mild showers. At noon time we were enveloped in clouds and in the evenings we were greeted by the chilly winds.
Let’s recollect the journey. Let’s start at the beginning.
DAY 1. MANALI- KEYLONG (120 KM)
With all our gears on we slowly rode out of Manali towards Rohtang pass. Our journey had begun. Rohtang is the first high altitude pass (3987 M) you encounter when you set off towards this Himalayan journey.
We were initially cruising at a decent speed wondering why people take two-three days, as the roads though mountainous were well maintained. Soon we reached the beginning of the pass and it was here we encountered how brutal the mountains can actually get.
As we started ascending the pass, the roads started deteriorating. Pretty soon they became non-existent. All there was, was mud sloshed due to the slight rain which made it almost impossible to ride on, especially with a pillion.
Biking in the Mud
So two of us had to get off and walk down the road while the other two struggled to keep the bikes steady. The adventure had just begun. The muck which was almost 10 cm deep and your feet would go right in till the ankle.
The only people who were actually still cruising at their original speed were the truck drivers. At one point hitchhiked in the truck till a point where the roads got decent again which was after an easy half an hour.
We made it past the pass and down to a nominal altitude by 4 pm. Which was where we realized we had only covered 80 km in 5 hours!
Rest in Keylong
The other 40 KM of the day took us another 4 hours and by the time we reached Keylong it was pitch dark. We could hear the sound of a river flowing right next to us while the only source of light was from our bikes headlight.
One wrong turn could leave us going down the cliff into the icy cold water or right into the rocky mountain on the other side.
Dirty, exhausted we made it to the end of day one. After a quick dinner we went to our beds. Dreaming of how tomorrow would be.
DAY 2. KEYLONG-PANG (180 KM)
The next morning we were mentally prepared for what was ahead. We set out after a hot breakfast, cruising through the road for about an hour thinking we had gotten better after the previous day’s experience.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy, we soon stopped at what was a waterfall flowing on the road. Rocks below, water flowing from the top. Even if the pillion got off, we still had to walk across the water and since we were not wearing gumboots the water went through our shoes. And our feet froze.
We rode past many such streams/waterfalls which flowed right through the road, the occasional rocks which fell from a landslide here and there, the muddy slush, the sandy road, and rocky terrain that day.
The Beauty of Pang
After riding through one of the most beautiful landscapes with natural rock formation, clean blue skies, and yellow-brown rocky cliffs, we reached Pang by evening.
Pang is just simply mesmerizing. It is a village with no phone connectivity at all. It did have an army base however which had a landline connection. Pang is a high altitude village located at almost 4200 m above sea level. And at that attitude sleep was hard to come.
The stars you see during the night from this village are mind-blowing. We saw almost one shooting star every ten minutes and the mesmerizing view of our milky way galaxy to make up for the lack of sleep.
DAY 3. PANG-LEH (150 KM)
We started our final stretch riding through another high altitude pass where the lack of oxygen and us being tired due to lack of sleep made it hard for us to continue.
The other bike went further ahead while we were cruising at a slower pace. As we crossed around 40 KM, we came past an amazingly rare straight stretch with well-maintained road our spirit rose.
All was well when suddenly our tire started wobbling. It was here we stopped to find out 12 spokes were broken. And there was no mechanic or civilization there. We then somehow pushed the bike and walked for about a Kilometer when luckily we found a small village with 10 houses.
A Kind Stranger
A small shop owner told us we could stay there while waiting for vehicles which could give us a lift. After an hour of sitting by the road hoping for a vehicle to pass by we finally saw a minivan. The villager stopped the van, spoke to the driver, explained our problem and he finally agreed to haul our bike on the back and take us to Upshi, the next town 30 KM away with a mechanic.
We were saved. While we hopped on the van, the other bike which had gone ahead came back as they heard about us stuck here through another rider. Now all four of us were together and we were finally heading towards Leh.
When we reached the mechanic, he did not have the needed bike spokes and asked us to go look for the spare spokes in Leh and to get it repaired there. (Sigh!)
Upshi to Leh
Now, Leh was another 15 KM away from Upshi. So one bike entered Leh carrying the tire of the other bike, going from one shop to the other for almost 2 hours trying to find the spare parts. By 5 PM in the evening, we finally got them and by 6 PM, we were back to the mechanic who told us to come back the next morning for the bike.
So this was how we finally made it to the city of Leh at 7 PM in the night after 3 full days of the journey.
Conclusion: Himalayan Wisdom
We started off with 2 bikes but reached the city with one! The mighty Himalayas can change all your plans and teach us how insignificant we truly are in the big picture.
If anything, this trip taught us the valuable lesson of humility and how everything is connected in the big picture. Strangers can be nice and helpful. Things can go wrong when you least anticipate them. After all, all things are connected and there is a reason behind it all. We must find our place in this world.
Related: All About Altitude Sickness and How to Deal With It
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Neha is an adventurer, biker, and travel blogger. Please read more of her adventurous stories on her blog “Unknown Indian”.