Cycling in Spiti Valley, India—Road or Not!

An account by Karan Vaid, photographer and Super Randonneur cyclist based in Delhi, @steelcyclist on Instagram.

Total Days: 11

Total Distance Cycled: 300 km approx

Highest altitude: At Kunzum La, 4590 m, pass connecting Spiti and Lahaul valleys

In April of 2019, I was busy looking at the Indian Himalayas on Google Maps. I had just about recovered from a serious cycling injury and was determined to see if I could still push myself in my pursuit of adventure.

The injury was due to a fall at a cycling race; I had fallen on my head and then on my shoulder, had multiple seizures (I don’t remember any of this, just woke up the next day) and was sent home with a surgery scheduled at Moolchand Hospital, Delhi for my broken clavicle a week down. But then I started feeling uneasy… turned out that I had developed Hypernatremia with a sodium count of 106 (almost fatal). I was rushed to the ICU and stuck there for 5 days. The doctors said I could slip into a coma at any moment. I was put on a cocktail of drugs and by the time I came home I couldn’t walk to the gate. The recovery was brutal.

But a year later I was whole again, and ready for an adventure! 

READY FOR A RIDE

I love cycling and short cycle-touring adventures really appeal to me. My wife and I had already done the famous Manali-Leh route self-supported and I was looking to do something a bit more challenging if not similar. Mussarat, my wife, had a very hectic work schedule and I figured I’d be going at it alone.

I promptly shortlisted three destinations: 

  1. Manali-Hanle-Leh-Manali
  2. Spiti Valley
  3. Paangi Valley

About the same time, my English friend, Tom, wrote to me. Tom is also a professional photographer … I met him in Istanbul when both of us were trying to be war photographers. He emailed me professing love for cycling and bikepacking. I scoffed and responded that he didn’t really mean it.

So a month-and-a-half later, he got on a Virgin-Atlantic flight and nine hours later was sitting in my living room complete with some free merchandise from Brooks, famous for their classic cycling gear and their legacy; they’ve been making leather goods in England since 1886.

Before Tom came to India, both of us trained on our own by riding our fully- loaded bikepacking rigs for a month. I sacrificed my fast road rides by indulging in these fully-loaded bikepacking simulations across different stretches of Delhi. My mates from Delhi Cyclists would sometimes have a good laugh at my expense.

THE BIKES

My cycle now was a Surly Ogre—a steel frame, tank of a cycle, with a very traditional 3×9 Deore setup. I had used this amazing cycle on my trip to Ladakh in 2016. It’s a great bike but I feel it was too hardcore for my requirement. I had also put heavy, puncture-proof Schwalbe Marathon Mondials. Nothing could ever happen to that bike. But it was heavy and I feel I needed something more lightweight for my trip. 

Tom, on the other hand, had invested in a Crust Bikes Lightning Bolt frame. It was very popular at that time in the bike-packing fraternity but hard to get. He had a tubeless setup with a Hunt Wheelset along with WTB horizon tyres. Also, he was geared with the latest of SRAM Eagle’s 1×13 gearing. Very cool. His bike performed brilliantly.

I used Ortlieb touring bags while Tom had some fancy stuff by Swift Industries and Apidura, expensive but very cool. We also had very good down sleeping- bags and two decent tents.

FIXING THE ROUTE

A week before the start of the trip I set up a meeting with my doctor. My wife had already had a word with her and she promptly put a height restriction on my upcoming adventure: “Nothing more than 4000 meters!”

So Hanle village with the world’s largest telescope at the highest altitude, was clearly out. I was a bit disappointed but I knew that it would have been a tough ask, given the time frame of about 15 days, and Tom would not get permits to go there. 
I then thought of the Spiti Valley and did some research on the route. Considered doing it from the Shimla side but figured that it would be easier (logistically) from Manali. Decision made, we booked our HPTDC ticket and stay. Interestingly, my accident was on June 11, 2018, and Spiti came exactly a year later—12 June, 2019.

Our route was as follows:

Day 1 Manali to Marhi
Day 2 Marhi to Gramphoo via Rohtang
Day 3 Gramphoo – Chhatru
Day 4 Chhatru – Chotta Dara
Day 5 Chotta Dara – Batal – Losar via Kumzum La
Day 6 Rest Day in Losar
Day 7 Losar to Kaza
Day 8 Kaza rest
Day 9 Kaza – Key Monastery
Day 10 Kaza – Pin Valley – Kaza

AND SO IT BEGAN . . .

Tom landed in Delhi on the 9th of June and after doing a recce ride around Delhi boarded the bus to Manali. We spend the next four days doing some practice rides upto Naggar and around and prepping all our gear. 
But there was some bad news—there was an inordinate amount of snow that year and the Border Roads Organisation had not yet opened the route towards Spiti from Manali, from Chattru to Batal. There was conflicting information regarding Kunzum La as well. The army had cleared the roads to Kashmir but Spiti evidently had been put on the backburner.

Day 1 – Manali to Marhi

Unable to bear the millions of tourists and traffic in Manali, we decided to start our journey towards Rohtang … we could take a call once we crossed over the pass in a couple of days. Cycling up towards Marhi we encountered traffic jams of epic proportions… we stopped at Palchan for breakfast and by the time we crossed Gulaba at 10.30 a.m. we had left the traffic behind. At Marhi, we pitched our tents and passed out for the rest of the day. 

Day 2: Marhi to Gramphu via Rohtang

We left late the next day after a substantial breakfast and some acrobatic manoeuvres on top of the terrace of a temple—the only place one gets a BSNL signal. But since the BSNL tower was powered by a genset which had not been switched on by the staff, we didn’t get signal. We started our ride at 10.30 a.m. and stopped for  a water break on the second switch back. 

There we were caught by an American couple, Ben and Tiffany, who were cycling around the world on fat bikes as part of their honeymoon. We had met them before in Manali but became good friends later since Ben helped me with a snapped chain at the very next switchback. 

By lunch time we had reached Rohtang and we spent the next hour taking photos. I had been here countless times but rarely had I seen so much snow.

We had still not made up our minds regarding our destination and decided to re-assess our situation at the next dhabha at Gramphu. Once there, we spent more time eating rice and daal and drinking tea and speaking to some locals who had walked over from just beyond Chattru. They told us that it would be impossible to carry our bikes as there was over forty feet of snow and ice on the road. We did not believe them and pitched our tents there for the night at an abandoned PWD work-station. 

It was a lovely evening. I found a cache of wood and promptly started a bonfire, and the four of us spent the evening talking about home, life, politics and food. It was great!

Day 3: Gramphu – Chhatru

The next morning we left the metalled road and took the gravel road to Spiti, aiming for Gramphu. In retrospect I don’t think we have ever been more optimistic in achieving goals for the day. The road was just a dirt track littered with boulders and mini glaciers, even though they had just been cleared by the BRO a few days ago. We stopped a guy coming back on a tractor and he declared, “You will die if you go ahead! There is no road after Chattru.” We didn’t believe him.

By late lunch we had arrived at Chattru (the end-point of the Hampta Pass Trek) and we could see the trail head high up in the mountain on the right. We were greeted by dhaba owners who had set up elaborate tents in expectation of several tourists but we were the only ones there. 

Later in the evening, four chaps from the BRO came in their dump-truck after completing their daily task of clearing the road. They reiterated what we had started accepting—the road ahead was closed and they had managed to clear only five kilometers. They told us not to go ahead but agreed to give us a lift till the uncleared section in the dump-truck the next morning. 

We contemplated setting up our tents in the open but decided to sleep in the crummy, open dhabha to help the poor dhaba guys by paying a little cash for night stay. 

Day 4: Chhatru – Chotta Dara

The next morning we had breakfast, loaded up our bikes and set off with the bro who drove took us till the end of the cleared section. It was a bit uncanny to see walls of ice higher than our truck as we passed through them.

We rattled around the back of the truck for a good thirty minutes before we reached the end and were greeted by a hill of snow in front. The BRO guy had that I-told-you-so-look on his face and all we could think of was falling into a crevasse … that sure would make everyone really proud back home.

After convincing ourselves that we would be fine we set off, made it through the first snow crevasse, and found a small section of clear road but just then my chain snapped again! I cursed my mechanic in Delhi and took out the magic link. 

We rode for exactly 500 meters and then came across this snow and boulder- laden road. There was no way we would be able to ride through all that stuff. So hike a bike it was going to be. On some stretches we had to actually carry our bikes over our heads

We knew then that we had partaken in a Type 2 adventure—no matter, we decided to push and push we did. Over miles of boulders and snow our progress was slow and tedious … tempers flared and Tom and I didn’t want to see each other ever. By 3 p.m. we had not covered 15 kms … clearly we were not going to make it to Batal. We did, however, get to Chotta Dara where we found a HPPWD Rest house. Expecting warm food and a decent room we made our way into the rest house. It was abandoned. 

There was no bedding on the beds, no food and no human. Fortunately, we were carrying enough food with us and decided that all four would manage in one room with sleeping mats and bags. The Americans got the mattress-less bed while we two slept on the floor. We spoke about the future as we prepared a hot concoction of pasta, rice, daal, coffee and more over our portable stoves.

Day 5: Chotta Dara – Batal – Losar via Kumzum La

The next morning, after consuming a large self-prepared breakfast and good coffee, we were at it again … We were determined that day to reach Batal. We pushed our way over boulders and ice and snow as the Chenab river flowed on our right.

On some stretches the only way forward was to leave the road and traverse the frozen section over the river in order to come back to a more feasible route.

There were sections that were dangerous and there was no way I could have done this If I was on my own (needed 3 people to carry the bike across over the snow and river). I thought to myself (as we took a break), ‘What if I sprain an ankle or worse—there is absolutely no help here.’ I did well to keep my thoughts to myself and smiled and made stupid and empty statements of how beautiful and grand the view was.

In reality all I could think about was sitting at home, spending time with my wife and dogs, and maybe reading about or watching bikepacking videos of other idiots doing similarly stupid trips. 

At around 1 p.m. on the 19th of June we saw the basket of a backhoe sticking out of the ice in a distance. I don’t remember us being happier. We made it to the BRO workers and the lead officer started celebrating and calling us crazy. It turned out that we were the first people across the stretch. 

At such a remote location with no access to mobiles or telephones and the satellite phone not working, the officer was desperate to know the status of the road behind us. He did not like what we told him. With about 30 km of uncleared roads left and the BRO working at less than 1 km a day they would take at least 20 days more to open the road (both sides were working towards each other). The townsfolk in Losar, Kaza and beyond would not be happy with this information. 

We cycled the next 3 km to Batal where we were greeted with a standing ovation by the various army and dhaba owners. We stopped at the famous Chacha Chachi Dhaba where we planned to spend the night and decide our onwards journey. By then we were exhausted—Ben wanted to continue up to Kunzum La—I wanted to go to Chandra-tal after taking a lift up and spend a couple of days there—Tom and Tiff didn’t want to do either. Common sense prevailed (I missed my wife and wanted to speak with her) and we decided to hitch a ride on the jeep of the BRO’s commanding officer to Losar. 

When I saw Chandra-tal from the turn-off during our climb in the jeep I did feel a bit regretful but I was happy to be able to get into a semblance of civilization after crossing Kunzum-La and arriving at Losar.

Losar is a beautiful little hamlet that depends on agriculture and tourism during the summer months. The folks there were not that badly hit since the road to Kunzum La had been opened and they were getting tourists trying to make it across. We had some trouble finding a room but then managed something comfortable next to a BSNL tower. I got a signal and was able to call home and even send a few photos over the patchy network. 

Day 6: Rest Day in Losar

The next day we decided to catch up on some rest in Losar and indulged ourselves in a little sight-seeing.

Day 7: Losar to Kaza

On the 21st of June, we started our journey to Kaza. The road was beautiful and flat with rarely a climb or switchback. We reached the intersection going to Kaza via a climb to Kibber and Key and promptly decided to take the lower route on the right side of the Spiti River via Pangmo. It was mostly downhill and we finally had that great cycling experience that we had been hoping for. 

By 2.30 p.m. we reached the recycled plastic bottle heart sign at Kaza and decided to go and get the permit that would be required further down after Pooh. While searching for the permit office we came across Hotel Deyzor.

The hotel owner Karanbir and his girlfriend, Kim, were bikepackers themselves (with various trips around Africa and Europe) and had moved to Kaza to run that beautiful property. Karanbir was very happy to give us free beer and offered all of us camping spots in his lovely garden.

Ben and Tiff took him up and Tom and I decided to find a room since Karanbir’s place was full up and we didn’t feel like roughing it in the middle of a town. 

Day 8: Rest Day in Kaza

In Kaza, we were treated like celebrities! Foreigners and Indians alike stopped us on the road or joined us at the various cafés, showering us with praise and congratulations, and then asking us about our journey, the condition of the roads and what to expect. We turned back quite a few motorcycle tourists as well as a few European cycle tourists who were carrying way too much gear to carry across the various glaciers.

Day 9 & 10: Kaza – Ki MonasteryPin Valley

We spent the next few days riding around and beyond Kaza, including to Ki monastery and Pin Valley.

But effectively this was the end of the trip for Tom and I. This is pretty much how it was. Two friends decided to do something they loved and set off to do it. But once we reached Kaza we didn’t see the point of adding more “feathers to our caps.” The memories will stay with us forever. 

We decided to take a long taxi ride to Shimla and then another from there to Delhi. It took us almost twenty-four hours. Tom who loves India and good Indian food wanted to have butter chicken so we took him to the various joints across Delhi every day for the remainder of his trip in India.


TIPS FOR CYCLING IN SPITI VALLEY

Tips for anyone cycling to Spiti? I’d say just do it – some research helps – so does talking to locals. Know yourself and your limits and keep a positive frame of mind. Remember that hundreds of thousands have walked on this route for thousands of years with no technology. You will be fine.


Kartik Iyer

Techie with a love for writing, novels, cycling and coffee.

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