Guides and maps
We took the relevant pages from the Footprint and Lonely Planet guides. The Rough Guide is also good but less detailed for this area. We had copies of Bill Weirs and Bill Holters accounts from the web.
The map on this site is generally accurate, but limited to the roads we visited.
Him Tourism also produce a free leaflet which contains a little info and some nice photos. It is worth picking up if you see it.
We flew London-Delhi with BA, then Delhi-Chandigarh with Jet Airways. The internal flights cut out a long drive Delhi-Chandigarh, but didnt really save much time in the end. Flying is also expensive and the pre-booking restricts your flexibility.
Jet are a good airline and a pleasure to fly with; the people at Chandigarh airport are friendly and helpful, but there is not much to do there to wile away the time. Their planes can be booked from England, and no great fuss is made about bikes, though you will be told to pack them properly, which seems to mean putting them in a poly bag and turning handlebars and removing pedals.
No one complained that we were slightly over our weight allowance.
We prebooked a car from Chandigarh to Shimla through Canter tours. It was a new air-con jeep.
For the return we had two taxis, Rampur-Shimla and Shimla-Chandigarh, both arranged locally. These were older cars with roofracks (Indian: carriers) for the bikes. At Rampur all we had to do was turn up at the taxi stand; at Shimla the hotel booked us a taxi.
Our car journeys were frustratingly slow 20-25 km/h. We had planned to move on from Shimla by taxi, and to catch a return taxi from Sarahan rather than Rampur, but to do so would have added a lot of boredom and saved very little time.
Its possible to go from Delhi to Shimla by train, changing at Kalka for the narrow gauge line. We didnt consider this, as we had no idea if wed be able to take bikes with us on the toy train (May 2006: we hear that this is possible). We had travelled from Delhi to Chandigarh by train before and found it rather chaotic.
We stayed at the Oberoi Maidens and Claridges, both are reasonably priced, and good, and have pools. The Maidens is in Old Delhi and not convenient for the airport; Claridges is in New Delhi, and is. Unfortunately there was building work going on at Claridges, and masons and carpenters hammered away through the night.
We ate North Indian food in Chor Bizzare (Broadway Hotel) and Dhaba (Claridges), and South Indian in Coconut Grove (now in the block with Janpath Hotel) (May 2006: it closed down last year). All were excellent. Contrary to its claims, Dhaba does not quite recreate the atmosphere and decor of a roadside halt: instead of oil-stained plastic chairs, wonky tables, flies, curling Shiva calendars and more flies, it has plush, comfy upholstery and Marquise de Pompadour champagne. Ah well, at least it serves dhal.
Simple guesthouses can be found in many places and are very cheap.
We stayed in more upmarket places. Two chains have a presence. The HPTDC state chain is comfortable but poorly maintained. It owns the Naggar castle which was recently refurbished and is recommended.
Banjara camps started out providing luxury tent accommodation but have branched into what they call retreats. Banjara properties are well run but a little pricey. The tent camps are dismantled for the winter.
In towns you can find a reasonable selection of Indian and Tibetan restaurants. Elsewhere you are limited to dhabas basic roadside shacks. These mostly provide dhal and rice; on the Tibetan side chow mein is common.
We bought our supplies in Shimla, Manali and Kaza, all of which are well stocked (including having petrol stations). For priming our stove we used surgical spirit, sold simply as spirit in some pharmacies.
At first we drank bottled water all the time, but this became increasingly difficult to find and from Spiti onwards we filled our water bottles from sidestreams, treating it with iodine. The sidestreams were not as common as wed have liked (even after a copious monsoon). Its a good idea to have plenty of carrying capacity.
The dhabas provide water of dubious provenance and also chai which is delicious but no way to quench a thirst.
Fruit juice is sometimes available. Since Himachal is the source of many of Indias apples it is no surprise that excellent juice is available there; unfortunately chemical-flavoured fruit juices are also seen.
The beer we had in Himachal was uniformly good, particularly Godfather and Golden Eagle. What we had in Delhi was watery and unpleasant.
We dont drink enough champagne to comment on the Marquise de Pompadour, but we found it easy to drink, though its yeasty bouquet may not be approved by connoisseurs.
We travelled from mid-September to early October hoping that the monsoon would be over and winter not yet arrived in the mountains. But the monsoon was late and plentiful, and most of all copious towards its end. It had caused severe disruption in early September. Nonetheless our timing worked out well, and apart from one day we avoided the monsoon rains. On the other hand ominous grey clouds were creeping into Spiti from the west by the time we left. Our holiday may have coincided with the best period.
The weather may be better in most years but it can also be worse. In 1991 we visited Lahaul and found that the margin between monsoon and winter had been eaten into at both ends until nothing was left.
Most westerners visit the area near the end of the monsoon period but the peak for Indian tourists is in May and June. Perhaps the Indian visitors are interested in different things. The thought of crossing the Kunzum La soon after (or before) its official opening has its appeal.
Winds are mostly caused by thermal expansion on the Tibetan plateau sucking air from the lowlands. Accordingly the wind blows chiefly up the valleys, not usually strongly, but increasing during the morning and subsiding an hour after sunset.
There are local variations. Near Gramphoo a southerly breeze creeps over the Rohtang. In Kinnaur the Shipki La provides a particularly easy route into Tibet, which results in stronger winds up the Sutlej than elsewhere (but the valley sides provide a lot of protection). Conversely winds blow down the Spiti valley for much of its length to take advantage of the Shipki crossing.
Dont plan to cycle high passes without reading up first on the medical effects of altitude. We knew from earlier experience that we adapted quite well, otherwise wed have had to take things more easily. Strength and fitness are no protection against altitude sickness, although they do mitigate the weakening effects of a thin atmosphere.
Indian tarmac is not the worlds best but in the end you are surprised and grateful that the roadbuilders have pushed it so far into hostile terrain (Chile take note). The made-up surface is usually not much wider than a vehicle, so the shoulder has to be used for passing.
Between Shimla and Narkanda the tarmac is badly worn and elsewhere there is local damage from water and rockfall. When this is superficial it is swept away quite quickly. Half the population of Spiti seems to be employed sweeping the roads clean.
Tarmac is being progressively extended in Spiti. A few years ago it reached as far as Kaza (from the south). Now it reaches about half way from Kaza to Hanse, with patches further north. No doubt it will eventually be taken at least as far as Losar.
The main unsurfaced stretch is between Gramphoo and the resumption of tarmac between Hanse and Kaza. This starts off quite smooth on the south side of the Chandra, but as soon as it crosses the river it becomes appallingly bumpy and slow. The track to Chandra Tal seems to be of the same quality. There is perhaps an infinitessimal improvement in Spiti, but tarmac is a blessed relief when it comes.
The climb to Nako is only surfaced half way, but the rough part is of good quality and the pitchlayers are there in force. The road from Sangla to Chitkul is likewise rough in its higher parts. There is no sign of the tarmac being extended but the rough surface is again good.
Those crowded roads
We saw three other cycle tourists, all heading in the same direction as ourselves.
GPS is not much use because (a) there are no good maps and (b) there are no routefinding difficulties.
UTM is not much use because (a) not many maps use it and (b) the route lies at the junction of 4 zones.
Here for what theyre worth are the 8 readings we took. They are in lat and long, and the spheroid is WGS84.
We had three flat tyres, all in the first few days, but only one was a true puncture, caused by a large piece of glass. There are often patches of broken glass on the roads. We checked the tyres regularly for embedded things. Unfortunately the mica-ey rock often looks like glass shards, and causes no end of false alarms.
The other two inner tube failures were both near the valve holes. We dont know if these were caused by our local wheelbuilders cutting of the rim tape around the valve hole I guess he knows what hes doing, and the apparently sharp edge doesnt cut the tube but we took all the tyres off so that we could put extra tape over the holes. Its possible the failures were really due to the inner tubes being tatty old ones.
We had taken 4 spare inners with us but we werent sure if wed be able to repair the holes near the valves (though I think I did a reasonable job) so we asked around in Manali. Through a misunderstanding 3 of our inners were for road bikes, but they served their purpose nonetheless.
Theres no bike shop of any sort at Manali but there are general repair shops. In any case Indian bikes all have Woods valves. I dont know how the Manali tour operators that offer bicycle tours make arrangements. In Kaza I did see a shop with a couple of tyres. Bill Weir says that the local MTB tyres are the same rim size as everywhere else. But tyres are all youll get hold of.
The roads are dusty so you need a dry lubricant for chains; an oily one will pick up all the gunk. We used Finish Line Dry.
In spite of our extravagant lifestyle our living expenses in India amounted to less than our flights from the UK. If wed stayed and eaten in basic places our expenditure would have been tiny.
According to the Footprint there is no foreign exchange in Spiti or Kinnaur. We were told on the contrary that exchange was possible in Peo, but did not verify the fact.
Direction of circuit
We did the trip clockwise because we like big climbs and long gentle descents and dislike the opposite; and because we thought we would thereby make the best of the weather.
An anticlockwise trip would be perfectly feasible and would be much preferable from the point of view of acclimatisation. The ride from Sarahan to Sangla would make a long and hard day (100km, 1740m of ascent to the Banjara camp) and theres no obvious place to break the journey. A sidetrip to Kafnu would be a possibility.
You can never have too many plastic bags or bungees.
We had several fords to cross, some deep enough to drench front panniers.
The tour was a little harder than wed anticipated and perhaps we should have taken a few more days. There were plenty of side valleys we could have explored but didnt (eg the Pin Valley). Some places we stayed were better for lazing around than we had anticipated (Tabo, Nako, Kalpa, Sangla). We appreciated the lazing around days. Often on the camping days, we werent eating enough, and the lazy days had to serve as feeding-up days too.
Manali Leh. A classic route. The Khardung La would make a nice conclusion.
Srinagar Leh. Another classic route, but made questionable by the troubles in Kashmir. It may now (2006) be safe enough to be worth considering, though Srinagar must be a tense place.
Leh Kargil Padum Zanskar valley. The road from Leh to Kargil takes in two high passes. From there a road south gets glorious views of Nun Kun before crossing the Pensi La. The return along the Zanskar valley is unfortunately not currently possible owing to the absence of any road, track or even footpath. There are occasional rumours that the Indian army will blast a route along it, ending Zanskars winter isolation.
Garhwal. The mountains here are beautiful but the roads are dead ends. It is nonetheless a splendid trip.
Kumaon. A route with a different character, comprising a circuit of the Nanda Devi masif taking advantage of some passes and some mountain biking opportunities.
KKH. Another very desirable classic route, but again with difficulties due to political circumstances.
There have been numerous reports of tourists going missing in the Parbati valley. Here is a news article.