Exploring the highest road in the world...by bicycle
IF THERE is one road that should be on every cyclist's bucket list, it's the Leh-Manali Hwy in India.
Spanning less than 500km through the Himalayas, the road is the highest highway in the world with four major mountain passes, two of them more than 5000 metres above sea level.
At the end of the highway is also the highest motorable road in the world, which takes you up to another dizzyingly high peak.
I can think of plenty of reasons this place would be the least romantic holiday destination of all time: basic camping accommodation, no running water and the ever looming threat of food poisoning, gardia or altitude sickness.
But by some stroke of crazy, this barren, brutal road is where my husband Ashley and I decided to spend our honeymoon… on a tandem bicycle.
We are no strangers to bicycle touring. Two years ago we cycled in tandem from England to Australia more than 25,000 kilometres through 28 different countries.
Things can't have gone too badly because at the end of it all, he asked me to marry him.
Which brings us to India.
In our four bicycle panniers we packed a tent, sleeping bags and mats, an extensive medical kit, petrol-fired stove, a spare tyre and tubes and clothing for freezing temperatures.
Our tyres first hit the pavement in the city of Amritsar in the Punjab Province and from there we started our "warm-up leg" to Manali.
On the roads, we competed with cars, motorbikes, overloaded buses and trucks, petrol tankers and the occasional donkey pulling a cart.
Being on the back of a tandem on a high traffic road where there are basically no rules is frightening. I had no access to brakes or gears, and trying to steer when all you can see is someone else's backside is not advisable.
After five days on the road, we had made it through the hot swerving foothills of the Himalayas to Manali where we were rewarded with cheap but clean accommodation and cafes serving a mix of western, Indian and Chinese delights.
We set out from Manali to conquer the biggest climb of our lives very early in the morning, to avoid the rush of Indian tourists who also were in town.
Our first mountain was the Rohtang Pass where many wealthy Indians from southern areas travel to experience the snow in summer. Most of the tourists happily play on the Manali side of the mountain, leaving the road to Leh relatively quiet.
We left Manali just shy of 2000 metres above sea level and summitted Rohtang at 3890 metres.
Looking over the white peaks and running snow melted rivers, we sat down to big bowls of instant noodles before starting the downhill journey towards the next mountain, Baralacha La (La means pass in Tibetan).
Here we realised that the higher we were, the worse the roads. In the transition between winter and summer, snowmelt leaves rubble and mud all over the tarmac.
The road was cut in several places by gushing streams of icy cold water.
One foot wrong and you could be pushed over the side of a cliff in a waterfall. We eventually crawled into a tent village called Zing Zing Bar in the late evening, both exhausted with very cold feet, only to find there was no bar, just more noodles.
In sickness and in health
Everyone says it's inevitable that you get sick in India, so we were carrying enough medication to block up the Hoover Dam.
None of it seemed to help when Ashley fell ill.
We were only 10 kilometres from the top of Baralacha La, so we decided to take a truck to the summit and coast down from there. Most of the truckies didn't speak English but seemed happy to help.
Conquering the mountain
A few more days in the wilderness, dipping and climbing and we faced our third and fourth major pass, Lachalang La and Taglang La.
We were careful each night to camp higher than the previous evening, however altitude headaches and shortness of breath depleted whatever energy wasn't taken up by the actual cycling.
As we rolled over the top of the hill, Tibetan prayer flags whirled in a frenzy of high wind.
Our reward was the almost 2000-metre vertical drop into Leh, the tourist hub of the Himalayan Ladakh kingdom.
After a few days of rest and eating and stocking up on pharmaceuticals, we were prepared to attempt to climb the highest road in the world.
I was both disappointed and secretly overjoyed that the height of Khardung La was incorrectly advertised.
We thought we would summit at 5602 metres but our GPS topped out at 5359 metres.
Given the incorrect altitude, I am not sure we actually travelled the highest motorable road in the world but who knows, it is possible.
And maybe we were the first to cycle it on a tandem.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: You can start a journey on the Leh Manali Hwy by flying into either Leh or Manali Airport. If you want more down than up, perhaps fly into Leh and give yourself a few days on arrival to acclimatise.
Travel time: Cycling the Leh-Manali Hwy can take cyclists anywhere from seven to 12 days depending on fitness and sickness.
When to go: Plan your trip around the Indian summer from late May to mid-October.