Biking the Hidden Himalaya

by Anna Cook

In the far North Western corner of India is the remote region of Spiti which offers unrivalled opportunities for the keen cyclist. This predominantly Tibetan area boasts 1000 year old monasteries inhabited by monks whose every face can tell a hundred stories. It's like drifting back in life a couple of centuries. The riding is on sealed and dirt roads with a mixture of gradual ascents, steep switchbacks, mellow freewheeling, fast blasts, and mind-blowing views

Getting There

Jump on a plane and soar into Delhi. Mrs Colaco's Guest House (3 Janpath Lane) is an excellent low budget place to stay. An 18hr (overnight) bus ride from hell takes you north to Manali. Avoid "the people factor" and buy your ticket from Hari Travels, Shop A, Hotel - The Connaught Palace. The fare is 350R, plus an extra 5R to put your bike on the roof where it's safely tarped down for the whole journey.

Around Manali

Manali lies at the head of the lush Kulu Valley in the mainly Hindu State of Himachal Pradesh. To get your biking legs going after all that bus and plane travel, take a day trip up to Solang village and on up the Solang Nallah (river). Or for an over nighter cruise down the left bank of the Beas River to Bhuntar. Hang a left into the Parbati Valley and continue up to the hot springs at Manikaran. Taking the bus trip to the top is an exhilarating experience too - the drivers get into rally driving on the narrow road which hangs over a deep gorge way below. The downhill ride speaks for itself - but listen out for the loud honk of an approaching bus around the corner.

Through Spiti

Starting from Manali, the trip through Spiti can be done in either direction. To tackle the high passes first and enjoy a gradual downhill cruise through Spiti is probably best. Allow two days to get to the top of the Rohtang Pass (3980m), the Gateway to the Himalaya. You can stay in the rest house at Marrhi (3320m) on the way up. A series of switchbacks takes you down to Gramphu at the base of the Pass. Take a right into the Chandra Valley (left leads to Ladakh and Leh) and continue towards the Kunzum Pass. It's a couple of days gradual climbing to get up the Kunzum (4551m). Chatru and Batal on the way both have tea stalls for the standard rice, chapatti and dahl meals - rely on your tent for somewhere to stay. The top of the pass is marked by a temple, a chorten of stones and a colourful array of Tibetan flags. This is the entrance into Spiti. Time to disengage brain and select top gear for some of that big ring thing.

Lying in the rain shadow of the Himalayan chain, Spiti has an arid landscape creating a moon-like appearance. The feeling while cycling through there is one of total isolation, occasionally broken by the sight of a small village or a monastery - locally known as a gompa and usually perched high on a hill with a brilliant view.

Kaza (3660m) is the district head quarters of Spiti, and being so close to the Chinese border you'll need a permit to go any further. Allow at least a day in Kaza for the paper work and being shuffled from one office to another. You'll have to fight to get a 15 day permit rather than the standard 5. Carry at least 3 pp sized photos with you. Depending which rules suit on the day you could be told that a permit is only available in Recong Peo.

Ki Monastery, Dankar Gompa and the 1000 year old Tabo Monastery are all worthwhile visiting. It is possible to stay at Ki and Dankar. The monks will cook you a basic meal - usually barley of some description.

Allow at least a week to cruise through Spiti to Recong Peo (2290m). It's a gradual descent following the Sutlej River and there is some impressive engineering with the road often hanging above the gorge below. Recong Peo is a larger town, and the place to obtain your permit if doing this trip in reverse. Close by is the town of Kalpa. You can feast on great sunsets and impressive views of Kina Kailash (6000m) from the balcony of the one and only guest house there.

Continuing down the Sutlej River Gorge, the towns become increasingly busy and the people more typically Hindu. You eventually arrive in Simla - an important hill station and "summer capital of India" in the days of the British Raj. You could end your trip here and catch the train back to Delhi. To continue back to Manali, it's two days up Jalori Pass (3223m) and down through forests of Indian chestnuts to Aut, and then up the Kulu Valley to Manali via the quieter left bank.

Biking is the best way to discover the pulse of India.

Nitty Gritty

  • Take tools for basic repairs - there are no bike shops en route and Indians do most mechanical repairs with a hammer. 
  • Maps of the area can be bought in Manali, but beware they are by no means to scale. 
  • You'll need a kerosene powered stove. Kerosene isn't widely available so stock up in Manali. 
  • For purifying your drinking water take either a water filter or iodine drops. 
  • Spiti is cut off with snow on the passes for most of the year. Rhotang opens around mid June and Kunzum towards the end of June until the end of September. 

Anna Cook has returned to the Indian Himalaya for the past 10 years - exploring the area by bike and on skis. She has 7 years experience organising and guiding ski touring trips around Manali. 

Anna organises a 22 day mountain bike trip to Spiti each year in June/July. A back-up vehicle carries all your gear and you benefit from Anna's intimate knowledge of the region. All up cost is NZ$5450 including airfares. 

To find out more contact:
Anna Cook
PO Box 247
Wanaka, New Zealand
ph/fax +64 3 443 9185