In 2019, we took two crews of crazy adventurers on two completely different expeditions across three of the highest and most beautiful roads in the world, traversing Khardung La, the highest pass of them all at 5380m above sea level.
From the verdant pine-clad hills of Manali, across the snow-swept Tanglang La Pass, to Pangong Lake on the border of Tibet and onto the high-altitude desert of the Nubra Valley – the expeditions were as epic as the landscapes we rode through. We enjoyed overwhelming hospitality from the Indo Tibetan community, slept under star-filled skies, dipped our toes in ancient glacial waters and rode some of the best (and worst) roads in the world.
After two different journeys along the Manali to Leh Highway, I’m completely torn as to which adventure I enjoyed the most – bicycle or motorbike.
The huffing, puffing and personal fulfilment of powering up the highest motorable road in the world on my Merida Silex+ 6000 (a bike designed and built precisely for this kind of mission) under my own steam was a gloriously rewarding personal journey, that had been five years in the making.
When I drove the same road in 2015 in Colonel Mustard (my trusty Land Rover), I stopped and spoke to an overland cyclist who inspired me to one day give it a go. Now I can add it to my list of completed endurance adventures!
I’m not a cyclist by any means, having only jumped on a bike a handful of times in the months leading up to the expedition. But, being adventurous of mind, having a decent base fitness and a mindset that shouts “never give up” I have the perfect tools to get me to the end.
The Khardung La pass isn’t a cycle challenge only Tour de France riders can finish, or even weekend MAMAL lycra-clad warriors. Whilst the ascents are long, they’re not ridiculously steep. Some sections might feel like it but it’s more the elevation and lack of oxygen that takes its toll and makes you feel like you’re dragging a trailer uphill.
So, was charging down an unsurfaced, rocky decline, undertaking slow-moving trucks alongside a vertigo-inducing precipitous drop on a carbon gravel bike the ultimate adrenaline rush?! Or did the feeling of riding a thumping 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet up the highest road in the world eclipse it with the sheer magnificence of being in the moment?
If I HAD to decide between the two, I’d probably go for the immersive beauty the bicycle ride delivered. Witnessing small creatures run for cover as my silent approach surprised them at the last moment, seeing the tiny colourful flowers almost hidden from view at the side of the road and being able to fully engage with people sitting, walking and working on the sides of the road as we shared the happy welcome greeting of “Jully Jully”- our eyes able to connect, unhindered by a full-faced crash helmet.
Both expeditions offer a different experience. The immersive feel of the bicycle ride is equalled by the sheer distance and diversity achieved on the motorbikes. Travelling to Pangong Lake on the border of India and Tibet and riding effortlessly up the three highest roads in the world whilst embracing that ‘need for speed’ with incomparable descents over tens of kilometres across freshly tarmacked roads. Those are the moments that will stay with me forever.
Whatever your preferred power source – petrol or pedal – traversing the highway from Manali to Leh is a mind-blowing adventure full of ever-changing landscapes that’ll remind you of how magnificent these wilderness areas of Planet Earth are.
Do your research, choose your adventure then contact us to secure your space for our next Best Life Adventure Expedition. We guarantee you’ll fall in love with the Best Road in the World.
To give you a taste of this mad, magnificent pedal-powered expedition along the Highest Road in the World, check out this video diary captured by our Expedition Director, Ben Southall: