Manali > Marhi > Khoksar > Gondhla
Friday morning, after a leisurely breakfast idly watching a mouse scurry around the kitchen of our chosen eatery, we finally got on the bikes and started up what was quite a big hill. It was, as expected, stupidly hard riding for me - from 2000m at Manali, up 38km of mountain hairpins to Marhi at 3600m, 10km or so short of Rohtang Pass itself. Occasional stops for tiny glasses of milky sweet chai at roadside dhabas helped punctuate the grind of keeping the pedals turning. Gaudy Tata diesels passed us continually, smiling drivers enthusiastically sounding the horn to warn us of their presence, as middle class Indian tourists thrust camcorders out of 4x4 windows to marvel at our stupidity.
Camp was just beyond the summer cluster of restaurants and dhabas at Marhi and I arrived cold, wet and running on empty. Within an hour I was at least warm, but with a splitting headache, nausea and zero appetite, there was no doubting that this was the highest day's riding of my life. Walking out into the darkness a couple of hours later to use the restroom (i.e. dig a hole), it was difficult not to be spooked by the hundreds of goats surrounding our camp, their eyes reflecting the headtorch beam and I fell asleep worried that I really wasn't properly prepared for an adventure of this sort, so waking up the following morning with a clear head and an appetite was a genuine relief.
And so the routine starts. Pack the bag, consume a day's worth of calories at breakfast, say goodbye to the support crew and get on the bike. Hairpin, straight, hairpin, straight, repeat ad infinitum and steadily climb. With everyone riding at a different pace we regrouped at a dhaba a kilometre or so below out first milestone - Rohtang Jot - a windswept pass at something like 3900m kept open by the Indian Army each summer as a vital road link to Leh in the North. The army have kindly put a big yellow wall at the Pass to make sure the photos look impressive as Rohtang Jot is, more often than not, shrouded in damp grey clouds and thoroughly miserable.
The tourists were enjoying it though. From what I gather most were from the South of India, and Rohtang was the highest and coldest place they would probably ever see. It was well above freezing, but most had happily hired fur coats and hats from Marhi, and were looking forward to their yak and pony rides around the plateau. As per on the ride up, those we spoke to clearly thought we were nutters to be cycling up here, when the warmth of a Land Cruiser beckoned. Lightly dressed as we were, it wasn't a place to hang around and, after riding UP for a day and a half, it was time to take it easy for a while, or so I thought...
Flying down the other side of the pass started out as fun, then the rain kicked in. Too lazy to stop to put my waterproof trousers on, clearly thinking I could in some way dodge the sleety rain, it took about 15 minutes before I realised what a mistake I made. At the foot of the descent I was colder than I could ever remember being, my lower half and hands were soaked and numb.
Foreigners are required to register at the police post in Khoksar, down by the river, so I was immensely grateful to get some chai, dhal and pancakes down me at a dhaba across the road, and to replace my freezing shorts with a pair of waterproofs worn over lycra.
Then, just about recovered, we started our afternoon's ride to camp. By descending from Rohtang, we'd entered the Pattan Valley, which would eventually become the Pangi Valley, along which the Chandrabhaga flows North West towards the border with Kashmir. For the next 5 days, trip navigation was stunningly simple - keep the river on the left.
The road rolled up and down, through Sissu and Gondlha, before dropping to our campsite at an agricultural research station. Indian chauvinism kicked in nicely here, with the women in our party allowed to use the one toilet, but the men firmly banned from so doing. Thus, next morning at dawn I found myself squatting besides a low wall, as a bus passed on the road above, the occupants happily waving at me. Nice.