Ladakh is a cycling paradise. There is no question about it. The quiet roads, the friendly locals, the serene landscape and high altitude all combine together to provide you a safe, fun, at times challenging and at all times visually stimulating experience that few other locations in India and indeed in the world could hope to match.
I believe that Ladakh offers something for everyone. From the causal holiday cyclist to the hard core enthusiast who’d like to pit themselves against the mountains and see if they can come out on top. I’ve compiled this list below which summarizes the major cycling routes in the area.
I’ve rated them based on my order of preference and this article allows users to vote on the individual items (you do need to be logged in) based on their preference. Give it a few months and we’ll see how your votes stack up against my initial list.
The Pangong lake circuit
This is probably the most funnest, friendliest and the most visually breathtaking ride experience available in Ladakh. And definitely my top favorite among all the cycling routes in Ladakh.
The reason why i loved this circuit is because of the 30 odd km flat stretch of dirt road along the shores of the Pangong lake. You get to ride right up along the edge of the lake and the scenery on both sides of the road is just spectacular. On your left is the lake itself and the smooth barren mountains of the Chang Chemo range (which mark the beginning of the Aksai Chin plateau). And on you right are the magnificient snowcapped sawtooth peaks of the Pangong range and the different villages that lie under their shadow.
There are 3 different villages one can visit on this route. Spangmik, Maan & Merak. Each spaced about 10km apart. And you can easily find homestay accommodation in any of these villages. I spent about 2 days in each of the villages and if i have to pick a favorite, it would be Merak. It is the last and the biggest of the 3 villages and the landscape just opens up here with large sprawling farms and grasslands along the lake.
The one big challenge on this route is the ChangLa pass. Changla is one of the highest (it is higher than KhardungLa which is touted as the highest motorable pass in the world) and one the most difficult cycling passes in Ladakh. So if you want to take it easy you should hitch a ride upto Changla or even up to the Tangste village and then start cycling from there. From Tangste onwards the road climbs very gently up towards the Pangong lake. Its a smooth ride with a couple of camping spots and wet lands along the way.
The fun part starts once you reach the lake. There is not much of a road here to speak of, it is mostly a gravel track with sandy bits in between and there are numerous water channels which run down from the mountains to join the lake. Combine these two with the scenery and you get a up and down bumpy ride which surprisingly puts a big smile on your face.
With time and the necessary permits one could possible extend this circuit to over all the lakes in the region, Pangong, Tsomoriri and Tsokar. This for me would be the ultimate cycling route in Ladakh and i hope to cover it the next time i go there. Zoom out a couple of times on the map to see this route mapped out.
The monastery circuit
The beauty of Ladakh lies not only in its majestic scenery but also in the unique culture and customs of its people. And nothing exemplifies this more than the ancient monasteries which are scattered all over this wonderful land. Many of these monasteries are clustered along the Indus river in a 30-40km radius surrounding Leh and this gives us a wonderful opportunity to cover them all by bicycle.
I believe that anyone regardless of their fitness levels (as long as they are properly acclimatized and can ride a bicycle) can do this circuit, provided they take it slow. I’d suggest to cover only one or at-most 2 monasteries in a single day, not more. There are guest houses available in almost all of the spots marked on the map, so you’ll have no trouble with accommodation.
My favorite places in this circuit were the Hemis and Matho villages. Hemis is home to the biggest and the most important monastery in Ladakh and as a result it receives heavy tourist traffic. But tourists coming here are on ‘faster’ monastery circuit and they do not spend more than a couple of hours here. As a result the village remains unscathed by tourism and has a homey feel to it. Matho is a big sprawling farming village which seems to be untouched by the tourism frenzy that has gripped the rest of the area.
Manali to Leh
This is a perennial classic and definitely very popular with cyclists from around the world. The main draw is the stunning landscape, combined with some unpredictable weather and bad roads makes this a challenging but yet a very rewarding journey.
The route is around 600km long and cuts across some of the greatest mountain ranges in the world. At Rothang La (3950m) you’ll be crossing the Pir Panjal range, at Baralacha La (~5000m) you’ll be crossing the Great Himalaya, and you’ll have to go through Nakeela (~5000m), Lachulung La (~5150m) and Taglang La (~5300m) inorder to finally cross the Zanskar range. Barring Rothang La the roads leading to the other passes are all in good shape (for cyclists, as of Oct 2010) and you should not encounter any issues.
For those of you who cycle light, you need not worry about food and accomodation on this route. There are plenty of makeshift restaurants and camps (called Parachute Tent Dhabas) available on this route. Basically you’ll find one such camp just before and just after crossing each of the high altitude passes.
For those with some extra time, i suggest you take the diversion at the More Plains and go towards the Tso Kar lake. The lake is only 8-10km away, you can easily spend a day there and go back to join the main route towards Leh. But you can also keep going in the other direction to reach the Indus river and cycle along it. This diversion adds about 120km to the overall trip but IMO its well worth it. Especially if you visit the Tsomoriri Lake. The alternate route is marked in the above map (the dark brown one).
The best time to do this trip would be during the 2’nd week of September. The rains would’ve stopped by then and you’ll have clear blue skies and dry roads to traverse. During the rainy season there would be a lot of water on the road and you’ll have to traverse a lot of little river crossings. Sudden flash floods are a common occurence during the rains. So do play safe.
Finally a word about doing this route in reverse. i,e ride from Leh to Manali. Some people seem to think that this will be a easier route since you’ll be going from a higher altitude to a lower altitude. But based on what i’ve seen on the route this need not be the case. While going from Manali to Leh, the ascent to each of the passes is long and gradual while the descent is usually sudden and steep (atleast it felt that was for me). So going in the backward direction, you’ll have to expect some pretty tough climbs.
The Tsomoriri, Tso Kar Circuit
Tsomoriri is, in my opinion the most beautiful of all the 3 big lakes in Ladakh. So a trip there well worth the effort, especially if you make it a circular route and come back via the TsoKar lake and Taglang La.
The distance between Leh and Tsomoriri lake (Korzok village) is around 220km and it can be covered on a bicycle in 3-4 days.
On the way back, the road forks near the Sumdo village. Here you have the option of either going back to Leh via the same way you came or turn left and go towards the Tso kar lake (~50km away). The stretch between Sumdo and TsoKar is possibly one of the roughest and most isolated in Ladakh with very little traffic and it goes over the 4950m PoloGongla pass, which is my favorite name for a pass yet.
While going toward Tsokar watch out for the Kiang (Himalayan Wild Ass), you’ll be able to see big herds grazing by the lake.
At the Thukje village (on the shores of the Tso Kar lake) there is a guest house and if it happens to be closed you can talk to the Lama at the monastery and he will provide you accomodation and food.
The area surrounding Tsokar lake is rich with wildlife and birds and you can easily spend a couple of days exploring it. Once you are done.. you can proceed towards Debring and join the Manali-Leh highway which would take you over the Taglang La pass and to Leh.
The Sham Valley circuit
I am calling this the culture circuit. It gives you a wonderful glimpse into the different cultures that reside in this area.
Starting from Leh, the road follows the Indus river passing through the Buddhist hamlets of Nimu, Basgo and Alchi before finally reaching Khaltse. At Khaltse the road forks, one branch going along the Indus river towards the Brokpa villages of Dha, Hanu and Beema, while the other branch goes towards muslim Kargil via Lamayuru and Mulbekh.
The Brokpas of the Dha-Hanu villages are an isolated community of Dards. They are considered to be of the pure Aryan stock descended from ancient Indo-Europeans who passed through this region. Popular legend has it that they may be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s Greek army. Whatever their origins, the Brokpas have jealously guarded their racial purity by not marrying outside their community. All visitors to this region require a permit, easily obtainable from the District Commissioners office in Leh.
There is a rough road connecting the Dha-Hanu villages to the Kargil-Leh highway through the muslim village of Chiktan. The distance is not known but you should be able to find homestay accommodation at Chiktan.
So the suggested route is to first visit the Dha-Hanu villages and then go to Mulbekh via Chiktan. You could continue onwards to Kargil or go back to Leh via Lamayuru. The road from Lamayuru to Leh passes through the fascinating ‘moonland’ landscape and then the famous Jalebi bends carry the road down from Foto La to Khaltse.
The Nubra valley circuit
The green desert circuit.
Most cyclists set their sights on Khardung La as it is (on paper) the highest motorable pass in the world. They ride up to the pass and roll back down towards Leh. But few venture onwards to the broad green valleys of the Shyok and Nubra rivers, collectively known as the Nubra valley.
After crossing Khardung La, the road descends rather sharply down towards the Shyok river at Khalsar. Here the valley opens up to accommodate the vast sandy confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers. After the confluence, the Shyok river flows gently downstream in a north westerly direction and along the river you’ll find the villages of Diskit, Hunder and TurTuk. This region is famous for its desert sand dunes and the Bactrian double-humped camels left over from the days of the silk trade. The Diskit Gompa sits high above the village and from here you get a marvelous view of the Shyok valley.
Along the Nubra river, between the Saltoro and Saser Muztagh ranges of the Eastern Karakoram, you’ll find the pleasant villages of Sumur and Panamik.
The one striking aspect of the Nubra region is the abundance of greenery in the valley both in the form of the sprawling farms and the wild sea buckthorn vegetation growing along the river.
The road to the Nubra valley is open all year round, but Khardung La will be heavily glaciated in the winter and cycling is not possible.