In Keylong, Lahaul Valley

We spent the night in the back of a restaurant in the small village of Khoksar, the first stop after the Rohtang Pass. From Khoksar we had a 45km "flat" ride to Keylong. At the end of the day our GPS read an altitude gain of 700m, so it was not as easy as we had hoped, but the road was traffic-free and the weather lovely.
Midway through the day a jeep pulled over and our friend Jochen popped out! His bicycle was strapped to the roof and he was heading to Keylong to meet us. We hugged briefly and made plans to meet.

A few hours later we were still on the road and I was running out of steam. I was actually unloading my paniers to transfer onto Yann's bike again when Jochen appeared, on his bicycle, wearing flipflops, to join us. He strapped my bags onto his bike and lead us back to Keylong where he had already found us a nice, cheap, clean hotel room with hot showers.

We hadn't seen Jochen in almost 4 years and he looked pretty much the same. We spent the evening feasting at one of Keylong's many tourist-oriented restaurants. We agreed to catch up and to leave talk about onward trip preparation for the next day. We spent two days in Keylong, capital of the Lahaul Valley, the perfect place to relax. Considering the fact that Keylong it is closed to vehicular traffic for most of the year, it seemed busy and its shelves well stocked. The days were warm, the evenings cool and the number of tourists was miniscule compared to neighbouring Manali. Our two days passed quickly as we tried to make plans for the next leg of our trip. We would be attempting to get over the snow-covered, 5091m, Shingo La Pass in the last week of June. We were at the very beginning of the trekking season and we knew that snow storms were not unheard of at this time of year, however we had heard positive reports from travel agents that the pass was open. We arranged to hire pack horses and guides to get us over the pass. This would be the only supported portion of our trip. The trek over Shingo La is considered to be a relatively easy (as far as trekking goes) but we weren't sure that we would be strong enough to do it with our bicycles so early on in our trip. Especially when we were told that there was still multiple feed of snow at the summit.

We left Keylong with an arrangement to meet our guides in the neighbouring village of Darcha which sits close to the trailhead for Shingo La. We left with enough food and fuel for ten days without access to either. For Yann and I this included Maggi brand instant noodles and soups, dried nuts and fruits, and about 20 packages of chocolate "bourbon" cookies which we had purchased without tasting, due to their high calorie content, low cost and their attractive packaging (needless to say this was a strategic food-purchasing mistake).

Cycling up Rohtang Pass

Day One - Manali to Marhi (35 km)

Here is the satellite map of Rohtang Pass: Here is Yann heading getting ready to leave our guesthouse in Manali for our first official day of cycling: Now here I am, 3hours (including breaks) and 7km into the ride: Here are our bikes after a negotiated settlement between the two parties: Yann, still happy, with his fully-loaded bike: Our initial plan had been to cycle the 55km up to the top of Rohtang Pass and then another 20km or so to the next village. We set our first goal as Kothi, a town 6km away. We happened, miraculously, to be travelling on the day that the road is closed to tourist vehicles. At the village of Kothi a roadblock is set up to control traffic. When we arrived a queue of vehicles were lined up waiting to be let through (they would have to wait until late afternoon when the tourist-ban is lifted). We cycled through without asking any questions and the Indian soldiers didn't seem to mind. We plodded away, took lots of rests and counted the kilometres cycled and the metres climbed. We had the road mainly to ourselves until the evening when the queue of cars caught up to us. On this first day of cycling we rode for 14 hours, cycled 35km and climbed 1400 metres. We slept our first night in Marhi, basically a truck stop with a few make-shift tents and restaurants for Indian tourists breaking their trip up the pass. We overpaid for a tent with two cots, but we felt too exhausted to set up our own tent and make dinner.
 Day Two - Marhi to Khoksar (36 km)

The next morning, the sounds of cars heading up the pass began at 3am. By the time we woke up, every restaurant in Marhi was packed with tourists, having breakfast, renting snowsuit, buying mittens and toques. We didn't feel bad about oversleeping our 5am departure time by 3 hours ... we wouldn't have beat the traffic anyways. The climb from Marhi to the top of Rohtang Pass was much what we had expected, switchbacks on a mostly unpaved, often muddy narrow road. A toppled truck and landslide had caused a serious traffic jam, so we managed to ride a few hours without too many honking assaults. The cars eventually caught and usually passed us closely and dangerously. But we were never too angry because they would shout cries of encouragement as they did "God Bless you!", "keep going", "you can do it", "you are so strong".
Near the last series of switchbacks we caught up to the accidents that had backed up cars for kilometres. It took us hours to weave our way through stopped traffic. We got lots of attention and were photographed by nearly everyone we passed. We did as much as we could cycling but spent a lot of our time pushing our bikes through the mud wondering if anyone would ever get off the mountain. Tourists queue on dangerous mountain roads for hours, for the opportunity to visit Rohtang Pass and play in the snow.  In the summer, over 6,000 tourist vehicles travel to the top of the pass every day. They are clad in full snow suits (we considered it t-shirt weather) overpaying for a range of snow-related activities: skiing, snowmobiling, yak riding, snow-ball fighting. A majority of the tourists never continue onward into the Lahaul Valley that begins on the other side of the pass.

It is a strange and disorganized place. A few weeks after our trip over the pass, thousands of tourists were stranded there for days:
(Article appearing in the Times of India) 

I reinherited my paniers for the way down to Khoksar. We left the thousands of tourists behind and descended into the pristine Lahaul Valley. The road was ours again and we felt that the worst riding would be behind us.

In Manali - Waiting to Start Cycling

We stayed in Manali for 8 days before setting off. There were a few reasons for this:

1- We were tired
2- We didn't feel ready
3- We were waiting for our friend Jochen to join us from Germany

We met Jochen in 6 years ago in Srinagar Kashmir and travelled with him for over a month through Ladakh. We had since kept in touch quite regularly and had asked him to join us on for this trip. Jochen had seemed interested but we hadn't heard from him for a few months until receiving an e-mail from him 4 days before departure confirming that he was coming. It would take him a while to secure visas and plane tickets, we agreed to wait for him in Manali.

Manali is not a very attractive place (although apparently it once was). It is overdeveloped, overcrowded and pretty filthy. We made our way to the nicer Old Manali, where we found a family-run guesthouse set amongst apple orchards. We spent most of our eight days lounging there eating home-cooked meals and sitting out on our balcony overlooking the surrounding mountains. After a few nights we realised that by ordering dinner we were determining our host family's meal as well. We had been ordering chicken until the old grandfather informed us "my family really likes mutton. Chicken ... not so much". He also informed us that "you really like mixed vegetables". So we began requesting mutton and mixed vegetables, much to our host's delight, whose eyes would light up every time we placed our evening order. Other than a crazy American evangelist who would pop by to preach to us every other day, we had an extremely peaceful stay.

We cycled most days along back-roads through surrounding villages which had yet managed to escape the madness of Manali (with a new road being built, this will soon no longer be the case). We passed women heading to-and-from their fields, setting out wheat on the road to dry, and weaving famed Kullu-Manali textiles on their balconies.
On days we didn't ride we ventured out to some of Manali and its surrounding areas' sights. 
Despite riding without our saddle bags the cycling was exhausting. On our first day we rode 6km before turning back to our guesthouse. Was it the high altitude or my lack of training? I argued the former, but it was becoming fairly clear that we had rough ride ahead of us. We did build confidence with every day as we lengthened our rides, but many of our discussions centred around the first official day of riding: 54km from Manali to the top of Rohtang Pass, a 2,000 metre altitude gain. Yann was as excited to set out as I was scared. 

Following multiple e-mail exchanges with Jochen we agreed that we would begin cycling without him, over Rohtang Pass, to the next major town of Keylong where he would meet us. His visa woes had forced him to postpone his flight and we were getting bored with Manali. Despite our nervousness we were ready to start.