Spiti etc

Bikepacking through the stupendous Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalaya, as part of a two-wheeled exploration of the Spiti and Kinnaur Valleys.

Other than the 60km asphalt cruise down the valley to Kullu the riding for now is essentially over, I’ll be back in the UK next week. Sadly. I am already missing the peace and solitude of the high mountains despite the luxuries on offer here. As I write I’m in Manali, a place I visited 12 years ago on my way north on my bike to Ladakh. The place has changed dramatically, from a sleepy village with a few guesthouses to a bustling tourist metropolis… but weirdly it’s not been ruined, it’s a really great place to spend a few days to rest my legs, eat good food and reflect on what was a super ride. Simply ace. I have a bit of time in hand, well aware that winter is drawing in in the high mountains I gave myself an allowance for passes being closed by snow for a few days and so on. Cutting it fine with a flight to catch didn’t seem to be a particularly bright thing to do. As it happens other than a few snow showers and some thunderstorms the weather has been good. I was lucky :-)


Kaza. Once the storms moved away it was a bright and colourful little down. I enjoyed it. There was good food, friendly people and interesting conversations to be had. I had heard some travellers knock the place as ‘nothing there’… but really that just shows a profound lack of imagination. Nico, from Sarahan, arrived here hitching shortly after I arrived on two wheels so that was fun. Good, intelligent company for a couple of days.

It’s been fun looking around Manali.. some of the old places are still here. I rolled up on my bike to the guesthouse I stayed at 12 years ago.. and they instantly remembered me so that was very fun. I have a very discounted room rate for what is a really comfortable place to hang out. Other things have changed… my favourite little eatery was a low key joint run by a young Tibetan refugee.. it is now an apparently ‘trendy’ cafe.. it seems that putting pictures of Bob Dylan and a painted guitar on the wall are what makes a place cool, that and advertising those weird ‘green shakes’…. not convinced.. the coffee is good however. Similarly the tiny little dhaba across the street that used to do the best, and cheap, momos, is now a magic shop (!) and tattoo parlour. Such is progress. Much of the growth is being driven by the increase in local Indian tourism… increasing affluence means holidays are very much a reality for large numbers of Indians these days. I became a little bit aware of it in western Spiti…but only a little. The changes were really hammered home yesterday as I reached the summit of the Rohtang La. At 4000m not desperately high but as the last high pass on this journey something of a milestone. 12 years ago the summit was a lonely, windswept place with a few prayer flags lost in the cloud. This time however there must have been 300 or so tourist vehicles up there disgorging their payloads of tourists dressed in silly his n’hers insulated ski suits. The summit was rammed.. I did not stop, quite the opposite… sick of having cameras stuffed in my face and people jumping in my way to take a picture as I passed I shifted to the big ring, put my head down and flew flat out through the mobs until I reached the peace of the road again away from the summit… am neither a willing circus monkey or good with crowds… yes I know I can be a grumpy old barsteward…. Despite that I cannot begrudge the growth in tourism and apparently, at last, the government is making efforts to control the impact of it. Up until this summer private vehicles had unfettered access to the Rohtang… the tailbacks on the narrow hairpinned road and environmental impact were huge.. so the government banned them all… and now only licensed tourist vehicles and those with permits to pass are permitted to ascend. Judging by what I saw yesterday someone(s) is probably making an awful lot of money as a result…. well, that’s what the cynical me thinks…


Anyway, enough of that… the riding has been simply awesome so rather than bore you with loads of words I’ll try and tell the story in pictures. Apologies if this post is slow to load, there are quite a lot of them…. Once this is all done I have to go and pay a little bit of attention to my bike.. weeks of dust, sand, mud, snow, rocks, and innumerable river crossings have left it rather mucky… I’ll give it a decent service when I get home but right now I really don’t fancy dismantling it for the flight in the state it is in :-) It has been simply awesome for this ride, the Surly ECR is the best rough stuff touring/expedition bike I’ve ever owned… so sure footed it makes even the most laughably awful roads fun… flying over loose rocks, through rivers on beds of loose, slippery boulders, deep sand, mud and so on…. roads that would simply be tedious on a regular 26″x 2″ bike :-) There may be another post after this with a spot of street photography if i can be bothered but essentially this is the end of this particular adventure. Hope you enjoyed reading!

Kaza. Given the lack of electricity for much of the time I found the electronics shops rather amusing. In reality a lot of businesses and homes have generators. At around 4000m altitude it is a chilly place.
Kaza. Many of the tractors here look like they belong in a childrens book.
Leaving Kaza I found myself having a conversation with this chap working on a building site. Like everyone here he was super-friendly and wondering what I was up to on a bicycle that looks more like a motorcycle minus the engine..
This is Ki Gompa. I stopped in for a look on my way up to the village of Kibber. You can stay here, full board even, and Nico did apparently..but at 10am I was more keen on a cup of butter tea before carrying on with the climb to Kibber.
Ki Gompa
Ki Gompa
Ki Gompa. Every gompa has a room dedicated to the Dalai Lama. In many photographs are not permitted but here I was told I could take a photo. A picture doesn’t really do the atmosphere justice at all.
The road to Kibber.
Kibber sits at somewhere between 4200 and 4300m. I’ve seen differing numbers but it doesn’t matter too much. The sun goes behind the mountains early and the temperatures plummet when it does so. the streets emptying and left to the rule of icy cold dust devils in the incessant afternoon gales.
Kibber. As with all such places it was a very friendly place. Also without electricity much of the time. At 4270m / 14,200ft it is apparently one of the highest villages in the world that is connected to a grid… I am not convinced by the claim, there are higher in Bolivia and Peru I am sure.
Kibber. Wonderful late afternoon light.
Kibber has a tiny gompa on the hill behind town.
As with all the villages in the area folk are getting ready for winter.. bringing in huge loads of grass from the fields for winter animal feed.. stored on the roofs of the houses it also provides a degree of insulation from the bitter winter.
I stopped a couple of nights in Kibber, there is an excellent homestay, so I could go exploring some of the trails in the mountains high above the village.
The area is a designated wildlife refuge.. I saw Ibex, Blue Sheep and some huge eagles.. but not surprisingly no snow leopards. They are here but are rare, shy creatures. A chap I met in the village showed me some pictures of snow leopards he’d taken. Very cool.
I rode up towards the 5000m contour with just one bag – my camera, warm jacket and some food…
..and had a really fine time exploring.
Realised I have no pictures of myself with which to remind myself what a handsome chap (cough cough) I once was when I am a grumpy old duffer in a home somewhere….
This man-made lake sits a few hundred meters above the village and provides part of the village water supply.
Happy days. Wonderful landscape.
From Kibber a cyclist has a couple of choices… backtrack down to the valley floor before heading west like everyone else…. or…. face a canyon so deep that the bottom is lost in dark shadow, maybe around 150-200m based on the geography of the place, and roughly 150m wide. Once upon a time the government started building a bridge but apparently got bored… or ran out of money. The only means of crossing to the village of Chichim on the far side is this contraption…. optimistically referred to as ‘the cable car’.
I’d found a chap in the village with some slings that could be used to lash my bike to the outside of the basket…. while he worked on that the engineer in me looked at the lash-up of twisted metal and rusty bolts securing the single cable to the rock, and the lash-up of rusty bolts and twisted metal securing the pulleys to the basket… not to mention the tiny size of the basket and absence of any kind of secondary safety cable… I almost turned around, an extra 40km of riding over a poor road into a strong wind briefly seeming preferable…
..but what the heck, it all has to end at some point and the chasm was plenty deep enough to have time to reflect on how great the riding was… so I hopped on board with my assistant and away we went, hauling ourselves across by means of loops of polyester rope running in hoops on the cable. Good fun. Photos are of a few folk making the return journey.
The extra cables visible belong to what remains of the bridge.
From Chichim then some fine riding on an entirely deserted track..
..with nothing but a few grazing yaks for company.
The track goes over the Lagudarsi La (pretty sure that’s the spelling, I forgot to bring my map here to the internet cafe). The map says it is at 5000m but I don’t think it is, judging by the height above the valley floor, roughly 4000m, I’d say it’s something like 4500m. Either way the yaks seemed entirely nonplussed by the arrival of a cyclist.
Typically immense Spitian views..
Fabulously interesting geology. The alternative road is on the far side of the valley.
Weirdly, given this track only connects to one tiny village, part of the descent was asphalted. Typically the asphalt was little more than a strip of black paint on top of the rubble. It will not last more than a year or so I suspect. No idea why they bother although Spiti is heavily subsidised in terms of infrastructure development and support of the local communities.. I guess it gives some folk jobs..
Like this crew in fact that I discovered at the end of the strip of asphalt. Busily painting on some fresh asphalt. After that it was back to loose rubble.
More roadworks..
As I moved west through the afternoon the sky grew darker and the landscape more bleak…
.. and as I approached Losar snow flurries began. It had been getting steadily colder over the last few days as winter approaches and I began to think of getting over the high Kunzum La pass at 4590m before the first of the early winter storms…
Losar itself on a cold, grey afternoon is a somewhat desolate prospect. I had planned to camp further along the road near the bottom of the Kunzum La but the cold, and tired legs from fighting a bitter, strong headwind much of the day persuaded me (easily) to stop the night at a cheap guesthouse in the village. I enjoyed my stay, the locals are, as always, a friendly bunch.


As always… cheery folk :-)
Losar. Threshing wheat with tractor assistance.
By morning the weather had magically cleared and it was a stunning, if chilly, day for my crossing of the Kunzum La.
The lower slopes of the Kunzum La. It is not a difficult climb, mostly hardpacked dirt with just a few spots of mud and loose rock to negotiate. It climbs just 500m or so in 11km, with only a few very steep sections. Looking back down the climb was also my final view of the rather wonderful Spiti Valley.
The windswept summit of the Kunzum La. Chilly at 4590m. The night before in Losar I met a bunch of Israeli girls with a jeep and driver. Not sure how long after me they left Losar but I beat them to the top.. it was important to me ;-)
Kunzum ‘top’
The descent of the Kunzum La… a series of rough dirt switchbacks all the way down to about 4000m. Awesome fun.
it’s a precipitous road.. :-)
From part-way down the descent another prospect.. a track running north to the Chandra Tal (moon lake).
more awesome riding
happiness is….
About 3km from the Chandra Tal there are a couple of tent camps.. put there to benefit from the growth in Indian tourism. I stopped at one for an omelette and bowl of noodles. Tenzin, the proprietor was quite the dude and great fun. His sidekick, in Tenzin’s absence, however told me in no uncertain terms that a) I could not camp at the lake (indeed, there are goverment signs.. fair enough by way of preventing the wanton destruction that would otherwise occur if everyone thought they could camp freely), and b) that it was not possible, indeed not allowed, to ride a bike all the way to the lake – that I would have to take a jeep and then walk like everyone else. That of course is utter bollocks, they would just rather I paid for their services. Consequently I took great delight in the steep climb to the lake and leaving some fat tyre tracks in the soft mud of the lake shore :-) I found a lovely bit of singletrack heading north around the lakeshore. Utterly deserted, the few visitors to the lake seem reluctant to stray far from the security of the trail head. A good thing.
Leaving the lake I continued north into a vast open valley sitting at about 4200m.
Spent a happy afternoon exploring the wild landscape.. the ECR is perfect for this kind of messing :-)
As the afternoon wore on I started thinking about a place to spend the night. Not having found any water sources further up the valley I returned to the vicinity of the lake and put my tent in a lovely meadow some 300m north of the lake.. so technically not on the lake shore but close enough to be completely awesome ;-)
..while cooking an early dinner the cloud came down and a light snow began…
..but at dusk the sky magically cleared with some lovely lighting… but very cold…
a frosty bike.. the temperature in fact plummeted. The light went at 6.30pm. By 7pm a heavy frost was forming and by 8pm my tent, inside and out was frozen solid. It was a beautiful moonlit night but far too cold to spend any time outside enjoying it.. I put my thermometer outside in the night and recorded -17C.. Despite that I slept pretty well tucked up in my sleeping bag with a layer of fleece on. Winter time climbing and camping experience in Canada dictated that I keep my waterbottles and water filter in my sleeping bag with me :-) There must be a quirk of the local geography that means nights here are significantly colder than the surrounding area.
Because of the surrounding high mountains the sun reaches the lake area relatively late.. about 8.30am, it was far too cold to get out of my bag without the sun so lay with the tent door open watching the sun creep towards me across the landscape.
When the sun did arrive the temperature jumped to above freezing and the frost rapidly evaporated..
..so I took my breakfast down to the lake shore… where, with the complete absence of wind, the scene was utterly mesmerizing…
.. I make no apology for including a few pics…
..quite the spot… the lake is ever so clear, I drank the water directly with no problems.
Back on the road again after some significant, and deliberate faffing about at the Chandra Tal..
Now heading slightly downhill following the Chandra River.
For 50km or so the road is laughably bad… loose boulders, rock steps, rivers running along the road, deep mud etc. I had a blast for the day, just one big adrenalin rush as I flew over the rough stuff, picking my line, using the berms on some of the bends and overtaking the few vehicles picking their way carefully down :-) My feet were wet all day but it didn’t matter.
It was a simply fabulous stretch of road
I couldn’t help but take more photos than really required… (sorry). I met Tenzin again on this stretch, he was in his jeep going to get supplies. He gave me a box of juice :-)
Later in the day the valley disappeared into a wonderfully steep canyon…
.. with some epic slabs of rock.
Deep in the canyon Chhatru isn’t really a village, just a small collection of rock dhabas with tarpaulin roofs that serves as a stop for truckers and other itinerants. It is apparently a terrific bouldering and climbing spot. Not hard to see why.
Chhatru… socks drying
The afternoon was wearing on so I decided to spend the night on the far side of the river.
With access to some good grub and terrifc scenery it was a great spot to spend the night. Not nearly as cold as the previous night, just a few degrees below freezing.
Stopping turned out to be a particularly good choice because I met these two most excellent chaps cruising up the valley on a pair of lovely big Enfields. Great company. They spent the night under piles of blankets in the back of one of the dhabas :-)
My final day in the mountains dawned beautifully clear. A good day for climbing the Rohtang La, a pass that has a terrible reputation for bad weather. It’s not high at just 4000m but sits on the boundary between the cold, dry air of the high mountains and the warm, humid air tothe south. If there is going to be weather anywhere it is here. The lower slopes are quite hard going.. lots of sticky mud and rough rocks as a result of the very many landslides, just the merest hint of scraps asphalt to tantalize a tired cyclist… About 5km from the summit however the surface magically turns to asphalt and it turns into an easy ride :-)
.. and the reward on the south side… 51km of descending a wickedly looped set of hair pins on a mostly good surface. Fast and swoopy, the temperature and humidity, not to mention amount of oxygen increasing by the minute. fantastic way to end a super bit of riding. Apols for the horrid midday light.

So.. there you have it. I think I remembered everything I wanted to write. I might come back and edit later. It’s been a good day in Manali, I bumped into a few friends from the road (it’s that kind of place), stuffed my face, did some extra sleeping and, errm… well, that’s about it!

‘Till next time!

17 thoughts on “Spiti etc

  • What a fantastic adventure. Thanks for the wonderful pictures and words. Very inspiring.

    Nothing would have persuaded me into that basket. I woud certainly have ridden the extra 40k.

    • haha,i’ll put the 40k in context… above 4000m, lots of climbing, strong headwind and poor surface. There :-) Cheers for reading, glad you enjoyed!

    • hey Graham, glad you enjoyed! Am carrying a Fuji X-E1 body with Fuji 23mm and 56mm primes (roughly equivalent to 35mm and 80mm respectively in a 35mm format).

  • This is insane. Great story, great photos, you must have the lungs and legs of Superman. I wonder about your gear as space and weight must have been a premium. I tried biking in the mountains when in my 20s. I am one of those people prone to serious altitude sickness so it is good to live it through your blog.

    • Oh that’s a shame about the altitude, I’m lucky, have always adapted very well. Gear weight about 15kg including bags but not food and water, about as light as I could go for camping in low temps, and of course a camera + lenses :-)
      Glad you enjoyed the read :-)

  • Wow! what a challenge! If I were in your shoes, I would say to myself “Have I got to get over THERE!!!” You must be completely un-phased by distance and space!

    Mike, I have come to the conclusion that you have a disdain for grass and trees. I have never seen such a expanse of “NO VEG”.

    Thanks to you and your photos my education is expanding; and that at 84!!



    • Haha, yes it is true… I tend to prefer places that are a bit empty… Deserts, deserts with mountains… Green stuff somehow dilutes the experience :-) glad you enjoyed the read, thanks for bothering to read !

  • Hey man! Great to find you on the inter-webs at last. Glad to see you made it back! The photos are amazing – awesome trip bro! We’re actually planning a big bike trip for next year so let’s stay in touch and maybe ride together if we cross paths.

    Happy riding


    • Oli! Awesome to hear from you, hope you had a fantastic time! My plans for next year involve the Pamir… so yes, definitely stay in touch!

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