I had modest goals for my first day. Cycle the 35 odd kms from Manali to Marhi, spend the night there,Â acclimatizeÂ and then push towards Rothang pass and beyond.
Sounds simple enough but the 35km ride does involve climbing from 1900m to 3300m. I've never cycled at any of these altitudes before, so i was a bit anxious and just wanted to take it slow.
Taking it slow didn't mean that i should be taking it easy as well, but thats exactly what i did. I expected a easy day's ride, so i took my time leaving Manali. Checked out at 9am. Had a nice big breakfast in town and finally left Manali a little after 10am.
It had been raining on and off. The skies were overcast but the sun was peeking through at places. So i wasn't overly worried about the weather. The road climbed up a steady slope along the Beas river. The going was slow, but steady. And i was feeling good about my progress.
Around 11:30am i reached Kothi, a beautiful alpine hamlet some 15km away from Manali. The Kullu valley ends here at Kothi and from here onwards a series of switchbacks take the road up to Marhi and then towards Rothang. I was relieved. I prefer riding on switchbacks than on roads with steady uphill gradients.
I had a long lunch stop at Kothi. It was here that i met Devan. Devan is a young engineer from Shimla, working at the Marhi Hydro-electric plant. He was very familiar with the place and regaled me with stories of his bike trips to Rothang pass and beyond.
"Altitude plays tricks on your mind" he says. "We all get very irritable when we climb towards Rothang. Its always a relief to cross it".
We then talked about my lack of preparation for the trip. I could see that he was veryÂ skeptical about my chances of making it through to Leh, but he put on a brave face and told me.. "Im sure you'll be able to do it. Just a bit slower than the others".Â Well, thats exactly what i was counting on.
I left around 1:30pm. As we were saying our goodbyes, he told me that incase i faced any issues at Marhi then i should go stay at the Hydro electric station. It was a nice gesture on his part. I thanked him and we parted ways.
From Kothi, the road climbed steadily. The alpine surroundings were beautiful, i climbed slowly, stopping many times to admire the scenery.
Around 4pm, i was riding the last set of switchbacks before Marhi. Just 5 more km to go. Suddenly the clouds started moving in and everything became dark. I knew it would rain but all the high altitude rains i've experienced so far were light drizzles and i was expecting more of the same.Â
But it hailed. White pellets the size of goat droppings fell from the skies. For a moment i admired the scene before me. It felt as if it was snowing and the road was blanketed white. But a minute later, the road was muddy brown with water washing down from the slopes above.Â Shepherds were running for cover. I was soaked completely but was determined to push on. Rivers of mud and stone started raging across (not along) the road and one of them felt strong enough to push me off the road. I gave up, turned back, and raced downhill towards a tea stall i saw a little while back.
The tea stall had a fire running and i was able to warm myself and changed clothes. Hot tea andÂ omelettesÂ cheered me up and i talked to a couple of truckers who had also stopped there. They were coming from Leh and i peppered them with lots of questions about the state of the roads and the weather. They were very encouraging and told me that the weather would be fine after crossing Rothang pass and that i had nothing to worry.
The rain stopped. I set up camp a few hundred meters from the tea stall. I felt tired, so skipped dinner and went to bed early.
Later that night i woke up and it was bright outside the tent. The skies were clear, studded with a million glittering stars. The moon was out, rising behind me and it perfectly illuminated the snow capped peaks of the Pir Panjal range in front of me. Took a few photos and sat there inside my tent admiring the view outside and reflecting on the day passed.Â
It was exactly the kind of experience i had expected on this trip and from the looks of things, i was off to a great start.