Crank India West Bureau
There was a time when the currently crowded and over exploited regions of Leh and Ladakh were prohibited for civilians. And that is a time when Madandra Kumar and seven of his friends decided to ride their bicycles from Mumbai to Leh over a period of 1 month in the year 1986.
Mahandra who is currently 60 years old and recently retired from his services as a Central Government Service personal for the last 37 years and settled in Mumbai with his wife, Anuradha Mahandra describes himself and his habit of cycling, “I am a hardcore traveller and want to see the world at a relaxed pace. To explore this beautiful world walking is the best thing but is exceptionally slow. Next best thing is a bicycle. A cycle takes you to places where no other vehicle can reach. On a cycle you get the complete satisfaction of arriving because your mind has chosen the path and steered you over it; your eyes have seen it; your muscles have felt it; your breathing, circulatory and digestive systems have all done their natural functions better than ever, and every part of your being knows you have travelled and arrived.”
Originally from Delhi, Mahandra found the freedom of exploring the city on his bicycle as one of the most exciting experiences in life. This experience of liberty later inspired many cycling adventures, a ground-breaking one at that is the expedition to Leh in 1986.
When we first heard about his ride to Leh and noticed the humble steel frame bicycles he had used, we craved for more details and this is what he had to say like it all happened last week to him.
The cycling adventure to Leh from Mumbai was undertaken in the year 1986. We were a group of trekkers, members of Youth Hostels Association of India who regularly trekked in the Himalayas. The team was lead by me and other members were Mr. Vijay Choudhary, Makhan Singh, Girish Bapat, Parag, Vinay Kerketta and two more. We started our expedition on 15th August 1986 and were flagged off from Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai by the then State Sports Minister.
During those days civilians were not allowed on Manali – Leh route. It was the time when Leh was not on the radar of tourism, Ladakh was known as a place somewhere deep in Himalayas. The cycles were rudimentary means of transport & were very basic. Bicycles were BSA Mach 1 sports with 1×6 gears ratio. We had to carry everything along with us including spares, food warm clothing, documentation, maps, there was no room for we won’t need this or that, we were prepared to face anything and that only added up to more weight to be carried on our cycles. We had used school bags as panniers. There were villages beyond Zojila Pass where people were seeing cycles for the first time. We crossed three high altitude Himalayan Passes ZojiLa (12000 + ft), Namikala (13500 + ft) & Fatula (14500+ ft). We stayed in hotels, PWD huts and sometimes local hospitality enroute. Beyond Srinagar the only food available was Cabbage, Rice and Channa Dal. However Indian Army posts provided us lot of hospitality in that area. Our route was Mumbai – Surat – Baroda – Ahmedabad – Udaipur – jaipur – Delhi – Ambala – Jalandhar – Jammu – Srinagar – Kargil – Leh.
The accessories and tyre tubes that we found as we crossed Srinagar were of very inferior quality and led to frequent stops for repairs. In a particular instance, my brake cables failed during my descend from Patnitop and I had to deliberately crash the bicycle and fall off of it to stop the bicycle. Else this story would have been narrated very differently. High ascents and fast descents in Himalayas, acclimatization to the high altitude, lack of tarmac road from Sonamarg to Drass, scarcity of primary accommodations and health care. In case of accident or serious health scare the life of participant was at stake. After braving the elements with only the desire to assimilate a new experience into our lives, on 14th September 1986 we arrived at Leh at around 4 pm. The sun has already gone behind mountains and there hardly any people in the village. Nobody to share our joy but for an old US tourist couple who were surprised to see cyclists in Leh.
Except for the commuting cycling that we were up to, we did not prepare ourselves in any other manner. For me, this expedition to Leh was in preparation of my Around the World cycling expedition. This challenging expedition gave me confidence to embark on bigger expeditions. It showed the limits of human endurance, mental strength and adaptability to surroundings. It developed the capacity to accept any challenge and the attitude that nothing is impossible. What we get from these adventures is sheer joy. My Around the World Cycling Adventure was taken up between 1989-1990 wherein I visited 34 countries on cycle, distance covered was about 34,000 kms approx. Since then I have been taking country specific cycling trips like new Zealand, Northern Europe and Baltic region and recently last year I covered Japan. My next targets are Canada and the South American continent.
Over the course of time, Mahandra has realized the need for good equipment and has gone from starting his riding on a BSA SLR switching to a BSA Mach 1 and in year 2011 purchasing a Hercules ACT 110 and since 2013 he has upgraded to Specialized Hybrid Sirrus and also owns a Brompton folding bicycle.
Keeping his spirit of adventure alive and plotting the course for his next one, Mahandra leaves us with ” Your bike is discovery; your bike is freedom. It doesn’t matter where you are, when you’re on the saddle, you’re taken away.” Crank salutes this free spirit and wishes him more wonder and fulfilment in the days and bicycle rides to come.