This blog is about my solo, self-supported, winter cycling in Leh Ladakh. I covered a total of 450 km in 6 days with the temperature down to -25° C without windchill and 8000 meters of accumulative ascent. Places that I covered were Leh, Chang La, Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley, and Khardung La.
In this post, I will provide a detailed log of my complete journey including the route I followed, places I stayed at, and other tips. If you are planning a cycling trip to Ladakh of your own, hopefully, this travelogue and guide can help you finalize our itinerary.
How the Plan came into Existence
My love for Ladakh bloomed in the summer of 2009, and it has only grown stronger with every visit. The first time is always in style. So the trip was on a motorcycle and lasted for 10days. We traveled from Ludhiana to Manali to Leh and returned via the same route. Yes, we skipped the Srinagar Leh highway at that time.
The trip turned out to be a lot shorter than I imagined. 10 days flew by and felt only like hours. I just could not get enough. I was so deep in love that I decided to experience it all over again, and this time, in slow motion.
It took me two years to go back, and this time for a cycling trip. Since then I have been making a yearly pilgrimage to Ladakh.
All these years, I had seen Ladakh in summers, across June to September. I always wondered what it will be like in winter. Some thought I was brave, some thought I was stupid, but I was just in love. And what is love if it doesn’t make you go crazy?
Cycling in Leh Ladakh
In a cold December around Christmas, I visited Ladakh, to completely absorb the beauty of the place, I decided to do this on cycle solo, self-supported.
My route was as mentioned below.
Leh – Shakti – Chang La – Durbuk – Pangong Lake, Phobrang – Shyok – Khalsar – Diskit – Khardung La – Leh
Traveling this way, I covered a total of 457 km in 6 days. Those who knew me knew that I was just being me.
It was an extreme experience of cold, solidarity, and Adrenaline.
MTB Cannondale Trail 6, 12KG. Luckily I faced no problem with cycle during this trip.
- 2 Down feather jackets ( but used one at a time, it was enough)
- 1 Warm flees Jacket
- 1 Sweater wool (thin)
- 3 Thick Cotton full sleeves T-shirts
- 3 Standard Running T-Shirts (Decathlon)
- 4 Warm Pair of Socks (Decathlon)
- 1 Leg warmer (Decathlon)
- 1 Jeans
- 2 High-Quality warm Caps
- Neck Warmer (Decathlon)
- 2 Balaclava ( but not used)
- 2 Basic woolen Gloves
- 1 pair of Warm Gloves (rated -20C and worn along with basic gloves for layering)
1 pair of Trekking shoes (rated – 20C, Decathlon – 4 Star warmth)
- 1 DSLR Camera
- Medical Kit
Weight of all of the above items: 5-6 KG
- Weight 1.2KG ( Backup, not used)
- 1.2 kg Sleeping Bag – Down feather (-20C)
- 2 kg Insulated water Bottle (with 1-liter water)
- 1 kg plastic water bottle (with 1-liter water)
Homemade Energy Food: A mix of Carb+protein+butteroil +nuts +fats, aka Mithai. 100g=600-700 cal , Total 2KG
Carrying weight 12-13 kg
Itinerary for Cycling in Leh Ladakh
The itinerary I followed was the following.
- Delhi to Leh – Day 1
- Leh to Sakti – Day 2
- Sakti to Chang La to Durbuk – Day 3
- Durbuk to Pangong Tso to Durbuk – Day 4
- Durbuk to Khalsar via Shyok – Day 5
- Khalsar to Khardung Village – Day 6
- Khardung Village to Khardung La to Leh – Day 7
- Leh to Delhi – Day 8
I very much wanted to complete the entire circuit from Manali to Leh to Manali, or to Srinagar. But it was the winter season and both the highways to Leh were closed. Hence I had no other option but to board a flight to Leh and rent a bike in Ladakh. While this disappointed me a little but it also left a plan in place for another cycling trip to Ladakh in the future.
Day 1 – Delhi to Leh
On the 20th of December, I took an early morning flight from Delhi to Leh. This was an experience in itself too as we flew over the beautiful snow-covered peaks and landscape. The change in the scenery was amazing; from smog to green, green to white, and white to brown. We saw a white-washed Rohtang, Moore Plains, and a frozen Tso Kar.
I landed shortly in Leh after a flight of slightly over an hour. The temperature outside was -12°C with fresh air. I checked in and made myself comfortable in a very friendly guest house. I loved the innovative ideas of keeping the house warm. But then I didn’t want to get too comfortable.
Also Read: What Clothes to Pack for Ladakh Trip
The Permits & the Word of Caution
After breakfast, I had to collect my permit from the DC office. So decided to walk from the guest house to the DC office (total 5 kilometers). The route was through the famous and happening Changspa Road. But this time of the year, there was not a soul there; no locals, tourists, and all shops were closed.
That was the first realization that it was not going to be that easy as I thought. The second realization was at the permit office. The Permit officer was surprised at my request for an inner-line permit during this time of the year.
When I told the officer that the mode of transport was a cycle, he suggested to rethink about this trip with concern and suggested to do in summer. I understood his concern and thanked him. He said that it was a first; in winter that he is (probably) issuing permit for cycle for that specific route.
That was exciting to hear but a little scary too. Finally, I was all set for an exciting journey to the oblivious.
Also Read: How to Plan a Trip to Pangong Lake from Leh
Day 2 – Leh to Sakti (50 km)
It was a good start with a reasonable distance with 700 meters in altitude gain. It was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature ranging between -3°C maximum and -12°C minimum. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my cycling trip to Ladakh.
Leh to Karu was a smooth ride of 35 kilometers. The entire journey was along the Indus River, which had just started to freeze, offering a breathtaking view.
Along the Indus River. It had just started to freeze. Hemis is on the right side.
From Karu to Sakti was a continuous climb with unmatchable views of Wari La and Monasteries along the way.
On the way. A break at Beautiful Thiksey Monastery.
The day was only 6 hrs long, from 9 am to 3 pm, with Lunch at Karu. I had an opportunity to stay with a family in Sakti. They not only offered me homemade food also gave me a place to sleep; a very warm place to sleep.
Most of the places I stayed in were kept warm without support without electricity. Though I was looking ahead at one of the tough days of my trip, I slept like a log.
My Night Stay at Sakti. Thanks to my host to make a special effort to open this place exclusive to me.
Day 3 – Sakti to Chang La to Durbuk
It was ChangLa Day, the world’s second-highest motorable pass at an altitude of 5358 meters. The claim, of course, is disputed but it made no difference to my excitement.
Again, the sun god was smiling down upon me and gifting me with blue skies without wind for as long as 60 km to Durbuk. I would not have been able to make the 1800 meters ascent otherwise. Despite this gift, It was a tough day. The minimum temperature was -16°C at Chang La at noon without the chill factor. The ice jammed cycle’s disk brakes, on icy & slippery roads.
There was nothing I could do to prepare myself for this. I had to work twice as hard as I was not only trying to peddle at steep elevation but also struggling to keep my body warm in the extreme weather.
It was a long day from 7 am to 5:30 pm. I managed to reach Durbuk before it got dark and high winds. Crossing Chang La was one of the biggest challenges of the trip and was risky. Another factor was the wild dogs on this route that can be very dangerous. Luckily, I had no such encounter.
But the day was rewarding and fulfilling in all aspects. The scenes that I captured and the feeling that I experienced were something to die for; no exaggeration. The fact that there is life that goes on every day in that area in such extreme conditions is a wonder in itself.
Again, I was welcomed to delicious home-cooked food at Durbuk and a warm place to sleep.
Also Read: How to Plan a Trip to Ladakh in December
Sakti to Chang La
Sakti Village in the back while going towards Chang La. The temperature in Sakti was -12°C when I started. It kept dropping till Chang La, close to -20°C around the afternoon.
Happy to see, what I had covered so far but knew that much more was ahead. It was just the beginning. Trust me; the picture doesn’t capture a fraction of the beauty of the place.
From here onward, I start to feel altitude sickness and tiredness. There was still a long distance to cover. I was rushing against time. I have to reach Durbuk before dark. So no time for any more pictures.
A little later, I arrived at Zingral, 13 km from Chang La top. Thanks to the Indian Army for providing me hot cups of tea at a warm place. I packed some snacks and warm water to carry on. It was a great experience. For security reasons, I am not adding any pictures related to army personnel and locations.
I finally reached Chang La, approximately 90 minutes later than planned. Cycle “disk breaks” were stuck because of ice and debris.
Once again, thanks to the Indian Army for providing help. I was given hot water to clean disk breaks and hot cups of teas. Few selfies till cycle’s disc breaks getting cleaned with boiling hot water. Getting the disk brakes cleaned here was a life-saving act.
Chang La to Durbuk
Coming down from Changla was a lifetime experience of down-hill. During my summer trips, I used to be delighted by the sights of downhill. My smiles soon faded away this time when I realized that in winter, they are tougher than climbing.
I was at the edge of my nerves throughout the downhill from Chang La to Durbuk; due to icy & slippery roads, headwinds (issue of frostbite), no sun (North face), and the temperature dropping to -20°C with the windchill. There was also the pressure of the time as I had to make it Durbuk before Dark.
During downhill, it is a free-flow at 6%+ decline which increases wind chill, multi-fold risk of slipping on the icy road, and no peddling which means the body is not heating. It is totally different than uphill in winter. You would wish you do all uphill in winter and all downhill in summer.
I finally made it to Durbuk and got a warm place to stay and great food. A stove in the picture is another lifesaver at that point.
Along with dinner, I had lots of Ladakhi tea. It was very refreshing. The homestay was a very comfortable and cozy place and the food was just awesome. After all said and done, Day 2 ended well.
Day 4 – Durbuk to Pangong Tso to Durbuk
Day-Pangong Lake is a beautiful blue lake at an altitude of 4400 meters. I was wondering if I will get to see a blue or white lake (frozen). I was soon to find out.
The plan was to cycle to Pangong / Phobrang and be back in Durbuk by evening. It was going to be a return journey of 125 kilometers with 1252 meters ascent. Once again, I managed to keep the Sun god happy. The day was blessed with beautiful blue skies without wind. The temperature was -12 °C to start and average around -7 °C at noon under the sun.
All frozen around, rivers, small lakes, water bodies, all frozen.
At the very first sight of Pangong Tso, I knew I was so right to have come here. The massive blue spread of water, tiny little waves on the surface, not a soul around, not even birds. It was so pure. It’s a sight I have captured for life. Only the lake and me, almost a trance state.
The lake had just started to freeze. In about 30 days, it will be completely frozen and I could play football on it (maybe next winter). Since I reached the lake in time, I started to move further towards Phobrang. Wishful thinking was to get closer to Marsimik La if allowed. But with treacherous road conditions and cold, I was not allowed to cross the Indian army barrier.
On the way back, the usual afternoon headwinds were reaching a speed of 40-70 km per hour. It was becoming very tough to paddle even downhill to Durbuk. I reached back at 7 pm, an 11-hour long day.
In the end, it turned out to be another memorable day.
Also Read: How much will a Bike Trip to Ladakh Cost
Day 5 – Durbuk to Khalsar via Shyok
In my complete itinerary for cycling in Leh Ladakh, this day was supposed to be a relatively easier but long one. Durbuk (3850 meters) to Khalsar (3200 meters) have an elevation difference of 600 meters. But with 1200 meters ascent and 1800 meters descent, it is a net 600 meters downhill with a total distance of 90 km.
View of Durbuk Crossing (Chang La – Pangong – Shyok) from my homestay. It was finally time to leave Durbuk after two nights’ stay. Thanks to IBEX Restaurant for providing food and stay.
I was lucky to have another bright sunny day with a very cold morning. The temperature was -14°C. The beautiful landscape along the Shyok River kept me going.
View of Shyok Village
On the way, I experienced wonderful hospitality from Skyok village with hot tea, snacks, and hot water for the journey. Cycling along the Shyok River with crystal clear water was very refreshing and close to meditating. The only sound I heard was of the Shyok River; no wind, no vehicles, nothing else at all.
It was wonderful cycling along the Shyok River.
All along the road was very good, except at a few places (4-5 km).
As the afternoon approached, the wind started picking up pace. The wide areas of Shyok valley get strong winds up to 30-50 km. It did make peddling very tough and exhausting. It added additional cycling time. The day ended around a bit later than 6 pm at Khalsar.
At Khalsar, one restaurant was operational and that was closing at the time I arrived there. Thanks to wonderful people, they offered me much need delicious dinner and a warm place to sleep.
Another wonderful day ended with smiles and memories.
Also Read: How to Plan a Trip from Leh to Nubra Valley
Day 6 – Khalsar to Khardung Village
The sixth day was a short ride from Khalsar to Diskit village and then to Khardung Village (4000 meters). It was a total of 60 km of a ride. The first 30 km was a relatively easy ride and then steep incline towards Khardung Village (4000MT).
Gail in altitude was a total of 1700 meters ascent and 900 meters decent. This route had relatively more traffic than other routes. Another wonderful, homestay at Khardung village with home-cooked food and a warm place to sleep.
Khalsar Restaurant, Thanks for providing food and a warm place to sleep.
Shyok River View, while going up to Khardung Village.
Khardung Village in view, 7 km, Visual illusion, Kardung is all uphill not down. Reached in time to take few pictures at Khardung Village
Life-saving Bukhari. It starts to get extremely cold here by 7 pm.
A wonderful warm room with a comfortable bed at Khardung Village. Lucky to have this comfort. It was time to get a good rest. The next morning was a big day for The Mighty Khardung La.
Day 7 – Khardung Village to Khardung La to Leh
This was my last day of cycling in Leh Ladakh but also the one that I was most excited about. This was the day to cross the mighty Khardung La pass and reach Leh. It was going to be a total of 70 km of cycling with 32 km to Kardung La and then 38 km to Leh; 1600 meters ascent and 2200 meters descent. It was expected to be a similar climb as Chang La.
Khardung Village to Khardung La
The weather was wonderful with blue skies till North Pullu. Everything was on schedule till noon.
After that, the weather started to turn bad. The sun disappeared and the weather turned cold. After all, my trip had to be made memorable.
At this stage, the fatigue of the last 5 days, low temperature, altitude, and pressure to cross Khardung La in time (no later than 3 pm) were adding up. But I was excited to reach K-Top from the Nubra side. I had been to K-Top multiple times from Leh side in summers but this time it was going to be from Nubra Valley.
After crossing North Pullu, the road to K-Top turned icy. It also started to be windy with another 15 km to the top. I was struggling badly. It was becoming tough with every km due to a drop in temperature and no sun.
It was less windy than Chang La but the fatigue was catching up fast. Due to icy roads, it was getting difficult to ride up. Thanks to the BRO, they were sprinkling rough soil on ice patches to maintain the traction. All military vehicles had chains on the wheels, which were making the surface rough enough for my cycle to get a grip.
I reached Khardung La after 4 pm. The temperature was below -20°C. On standard mercury temperature reader, it was -24°C but my electronic reader was stuck at -16°C.
Whatever it was, it was damn cold. Another worry was frostbite due to low temperature & headwinds. I think I barely escaped that. Though, I started to experience severe pain in my finger and toe.
Cycling from Khardung La to Leh
At Khardung La top, thanks to our Army, they offered hot tea /water and biscuits and a very warm place. In 10-15 minutes, it gave me enough energy to start downhill.
As expected, the downhill journey was even tougher on a very slippery icy road. I slipped a few times, luckily nothing serious, thanks to helmet and cycle disk brakes. Icy roads continued till South Pullu. It was a bit scary to ride. In a few patches, I decided to walk, similar to what I did in Chang La downhill.
From Khardung La top, it took a long time for me to get down to South Pullu. It was nearly dark but the full moon seemed like another sun to me. It was cloudy but the moonlight was enough to navigate with a headlamp.
At South Pullu, the temperature was around -16°C, and no ice on the road which was a great relief. Trust me, at that time -16°C felt like 20°C.
I finally managed to reach Leh (-10 km) safely by 7 pm in one piece. O took one short video while cycling downhill but after that no picture.
I can’t recall much of the last night I spent in Leh. I just remembered packing my cycle with my eyes a little wet. A memorable trip came to an end. I was thanking my cycle to have done this journey with me and not only carried me. But also all the things I needed throughout and the help I got from everyone when needed, including weather.
Hence came an end to my 8 days long cycling trip to Leh Ladakh. Is it the first time anyone covered this route solo, self-supported in December? Well, the jury is still out on that.
Day 8 – Leh to Delhi
On 27th December, I took a morning flight to Delhi and have been missing Ladakh since. If you are not already in love with this place, you surely will be.
- No. Of days: 8 (21 – 26th Dec cycling, 20-27th Total Duration)
- Total Distance covered: 457 km
- Route: Leh – Sakti – ChangLa – Durbuk – Pangong Lake – Phobrang -Shyok – Khalsar – Diskit – Khardung La – Leh
- Total Ascent: 8100 meters
- Total Descent: 8100 meters
- Highest elevation: 5400 meters (Khardung La is debatable 5680 meters)
- Temperature Experienced: Day -3°C to -22°C (Cycling), Night -10°C to -21°C(sleeping at warm place @ 10C)
- Airtel 4G at Leh, Karu, Sakti
- BSNL at Durbuk, Tangtse, Khalsar
- All landscape is either brown or white, not a blade of green grass.
- If there is water, it is frozen like a rock. You must carry sufficient water while cycling in Leh Ladakh in winter.
- If you are flying from Delhi, you feel and see freshness from AQI of 350 at Delhi to 0 at Leh.
Leh and around
- Life looks normal at Leh and around but very few tourists and locals.
- 90% of shops/hotels are closed compared to July-August
- Food options are very limited, but you relish almost everything if you do what I did every day
- Taxis are available in Leh even during the winter season.
- You need to make sure that you book your stay (guest house) and talk to the person for facilities.
- Very basic facilities are available, except for one or two expensive hotels.
- Going beyond Leh, make sure that you have confirmed your stay, nearly all guesthouses and hotels are closed.
Challenges of Cycling in Leh Ladakh in Winter
- The body needs to overwork to maintain body temperature in addition to peddling. This will be the biggest challenge of cycling in Leh Ladakh in winter.
- Very cold air to breathe which is very painful (may lead to frostbites). Covering the face reduces airflow which in turn reduces oxygen volume, which is already at 70%-50%.
- Inhaling cold air makes your inner body cold. The body needs extra effort to maintain body temp.
- Risk of frostbites at hand and foot when there is no sun, at passes, or downhill with the windchill factor.
- Roads are icy near passes, which are sometimes impossible to cycle or walk, need crampons.
- In case of emergency, help may be delayed due to less/no traffic during winters.
- Days are very short max. 9-10 hr daylight, compared to 14hr in summer. You will have to plan your stay very carefully and delays can be very very risky.
Benefits of Cycling in Leh Ladakh in Winter
- Different and beautiful Landscape.
- If you love solitude, it is a lot there, hardly any tourists and very few locals.
- No traffic on roads, you can be on your own whole day
- Lots of Adrenaline
- Know locals better and wonderful experience to know them better to learn a lot about there simplicity, kind, helpful and loving nature.
Leh to Pangong Lake Cycling
Cycling from Leh to Pangong Lake is a 2 days affair at least. I highly doubt that you will be about to complete it in a day unless you were super-fit. The total distance between both places is about 150 kilometers in total. If you go to Spangmik or Man / Merak village, more kilometers will get added to this.
Half of this distance is an uphill ride, a total of 75 kilometers from Leh to Chang La. The challenging part however is only after Sakti.
Leh is at an altitude of about 3500 meters and Sakti is at 3812 meters. So this entire ride of 47 kilometers is almost flat as you only gain about 300 meters.
After Sakti however, for the next 28 kilometers, the road climbs up steeply to an altitude of 5,360 meters at Chang La. After crossing Chang La, it is most all either downhill or flat till Pangong Lake.
Leh to Khardung La Cycling
Cycling from Leh to Khardung La Pass is one of the top tourist activities in Ladakh. A lot of tourists arrive in the city by flight, rent a bike and then cycle from Leh to Khardung La as a day trip.
The distance between Leh to Khardung La is about 40 kilometers and it is an uphill ride all the way. Khardung La is at an altitude of 5359 meters. So from Leh, in 40 kilometers, you gain about 1800 meters.
But as long as you have decent biking experience, good stamina, and have acclimatized properly, it can be easily done in a day.
Cycling in Leh Ladakh – Conclusion
I hope the travelogue and information I provided above on cycling in Leh Ladakh was of help. If you have any questions or need any other details, please feel free to ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum and I will be glad to answer.
Special thanks to my daughter, Sara for editing this article to add life to it. Otherwise, it was just filled with numbers and facts. Thank you for reading!!!