This blog is contributed by Abhirup Paul, a freelance trek leader and an outdoor educator who has trekked extensively in the Himalayas. Here he shares with us the experience of his solo cycling trip in Spiti Valley between Kaza and Kibber. Hope you enjoy reading about his adventure trip as much as we did.
It was the month of September in 2016. I had just arrived in Kaza after a multi-day trek. After a day’s rest, I made a sudden decision to cycle from Kaza to Kibber. In hindsight, it was perhaps one of the best unplanned decisions I had ever made. Here, I share a few memorable moments from my cycling trip in Spiti Valley of Himachal with a few helpful tips at the end.
The remote villages of Kaza and Kibber are located very high up in the cold desert valley of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. One of the least populated regions in the country, Kibber lies about 20 kms from Kaza. The most photographed spot in Spiti valley, the insta-favourite Key (Ki/kee) Monastery is located on the way from Kaza to Kibber. The roads are fairly smooth for such isolated and far-flung mountainous areas.
The absolute elevation and the relative difference in altitudes between the two villages, posed a major challenge. Kaza is located at about 12.5k feet (3800 m) whereas Kibber is only 20 Kms away at 14k feet (4270 m). At such heights, everybody is susceptible to the risk of Altitude Sickness (or Acute Mountain Sickness) irrespective of their age, gender, experience or fitness levels. Without acclimatization in such ‘thin’ air, any physical activity is dangerous. Luckily in my case, having trekked for 6 days and crossed the Bhaba pass (which lies at about 16K feet), the body was well adapted to the low-oxygen environment.
Although I was well acclimatized, as a noob cyclist, especially with an MTB, an elevation gain of 1500 feet from Kaza to Kibber was the most formidable hurdle in front of me. I remember having a very tough time pedalling on the dreaded uphill sections of the route. But coming to think of the arduous journey now, every bit of the exertion and all struggle endured, was certainly more than worth it.
As soon as I left Kaza, the veritable wonderland of Spiti slowly unfolded right in front of my eyes. I marveled at the vast reddish-brown expanse under the blue sky stretching for miles with no end in view. It was love at first sight.
As I cycled my way through the mostly deserted road flanked by colossal canyons on one side and a deep drop of the massive riverbed on the other, I could sense a predilection for unplanned decisions growing inside me. Blissfully unaware of all my worries, I kept on pedaling with a new-found euphoria. All the stressful thoughts, if there were any, disappeared in a jiffy. The breathtaking vistas engulfed me at every stroke of the pedal.
Initially it was a flat road but then soon came the uphill and downhill sections of the route. I had a blast riding on the downward sloping bits but the uphill ones were proving to be a big dampener to my growing love affair. The inclined portions were a constant brutal reminder of the realities. It was a painful jab to stop dreaming and keep working the pedals. Few steep portions were too tiring at times and often I felt stuck and going nowhere. The whole trip was a pain in the ass, literally. The entire lower body was crying for help throughout the journey and the dry environment on a clear day didn’t help either. In the blistering heat, my sweat glands were on fire.
The most difficult stretch of all came at the end just before Kibber. It was a tortuous section full of many twists and turns with the biggest elevation gain so far. For the first time in the entire journey, I was compelled to reconsider my decisions and thoughts of giving up crossed my mind. I was completely exhausted and sapped out of all energy. My body was in pain and the heat made it even more unbearable. I was confused and disoriented.
I knew I was very close to the final destination and it did not make any sense to return now. Somehow gathering my composure, I continued pedalling with frequent breaks on the way. It was a pleasant distraction to come across informative street signs on Snow Leopards and Blue Sheep put up by the Kibber Wildlife sanctuary authorities.
Yet the focus always shifted quickly to the hard slog. I pushed on in a snail’s pace. Soon the beautiful village of Kibber came into sight. The little houses, distinctly white in color with black outlines and tiny windows, appeared to be welcoming me. A sight for the sore eyes, it breathed a new lease of life in me. I continued riding and did not stop after that. With renewed vigour I moved on, and after cycling for about half an hour, I was there. Finally, I had done it. I had managed to complete the gruelling ride. A sweet smell of success was in the air.
After exploring the village and a quick lunch, it was now time to return. Twenty kilometers more to go back to Kaza. The best part, however was yet to come. The serpentine road near the village had given me the toughest of times while going up. When returning now, I was ready to enjoy the fruits of my labour going downhill.
The twisty section was my dose of extreme adventure for the day. I made a dash down the road cutting through the wind at breakneck speed. Embracing the boost of adrenaline rushing inside my body, I carefully maneuvered through the numerous U-turns. This thrilling part was the most perilous too. The winding roads did not have any barricades erected. They offered a dangerous freefall from the edge. One little misstep or a wrong judgement on my part could be potentially fatal. With hands firmly on brakes, I was having the time of my life.
A sense of achievement coupled with the thrill of racing downhill with the refreshing wind hitting my sunburnt face, it was nothing short of a magical experience. Such feelings are difficult to convey in words and will always remain inexpressible.
With a total distance of 40 kms, cycling from Kaza to Kibber and back is perhaps not the most comfortable option to choose. For me, it was quite a physically demanding and a mentally taxing excursion. But, it was also a supremely rewarding experience with an awesome taste of adventure. An indelible impression was left on me and the memories etched in my mind will be cherished forever.
If you want to give cycling tour in Himachal Pradesh a shot, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Acclimatization: I would recommend spending at least two-three active days in Kaza before undertaking Cycling Tour of Spiti Valley. Take short hikes, explore Kaza and its surroundings, visit the cafes, the monastery and the markets. Just be active.
Hydration: Adequate water intake in such a dry environment will prevent any dehydration troubles and help deal with any AMS issues as well. Make sure to take along at least 2-3 L of water. I recommend a hydration bag. As you approach the Key monastery, you will come across a few houses and a shop where you can replenish your water and food.
Before you start: Apply a good sunscreen on the exposed surfaces to avoid sunburns. Put on sun goggles, a pair of comfortable sports shoes and wear a wide brimmed sun hat with strings attached. Do not forget a rain jacket and a basic first aid kit. Rehydration salts(ORS) and snacks for munching on the way are good to have.
Renting a bike: There are a lot of options in Kaza for renting bikes. In my case, I took one from The Himalayan Cafe, a very popular local cafe in the center of Kaza. They charged me a rent of Rs. 500 per day. It was a yellow Tremor MTB from Firefox. Do not forget a helmet which is generally included in the rent. If you have never ridden a geared MTB, I would advise you rent it the previous day and bike around in Kaza just to get the hang of it. Make sure to check the condition of tyres, air pressure, brakes, gears and the seat adjustments.
About Abhirup Paul
Abhirup is a freelance trek leader and an outdoor educator. He has extensively trekked all over the Himalayas and led more than 1000 people up to beautiful mountains from Kashmir to Sikkim, including Nepal. When he is not traveling, he likes to pen down his thoughts and experiences to help fellow backpackers. Follow him on Instagram.