Manali-Leh Road Trip

Two of the most important things I missed terribly during my Leh visit in 2008 were good coffee and a longer stay. The beauty this land has to offer is never the same during a day at a stretch, and then of course during all 5-6 months that it is accessible. Colors, images, and shadows don't just change with the angle at which the Sun is but also with seasons and with the mood of the playful clouds. When I was there in 2008, I had been crazily preparing for that four-day trip. So when I came back from there then, I left Ladakh with an emotion that felt like a promise - that I'd be back in a year's time. And I'm glad I kept my promise and went there before jumping the one-year deadline ;-)

In 2008, it was a roundtrip by air. This time, it was Delhi-Manali-Leh by road, and return by air. Out of the two roads to Leh -- Srinagar to Leh and Manali to Leh -- my choice had to be the Manali-Leh stretch. This journey is the preferred choice of those looking for adventure and is a celebrated trip for bikers and photographers alike. I don't have anything against the Srinagar-Leh trip. It's just that I wished for covering the Manali-Leh roads first. This journey is not only more scenic of the two; it is also longer and more rugged.

Before the Journey

We booked the air tickets from Leh to Delhi well in advance and were able to get them at lowest possible airfare from Kingfisher Red (Deccan). Since I was anyway planning for the trip, I kept checking the airfares almost every other day till one day I hit gold. For a particular date, the fares were as low as Re. 1. That meant we just paid the taxes per head and undertook the most economical and again, most picturesque air journey of our lives.

Tip: Book tickets well in advance. From Delhi to Leh - choose window seats on the left of the aircraft, and try to avoid the seats that have wings of the planes to stop you from viewing the landscape. From Leh to Delhi, do the same for the right hand side of the aircraft. At window seats of course, I guarantee you most breathtaking views of snow capped peaks starting/ending 20 minutes to/from Leh.

We also booked our bus tickets for the journey from Delhi to Manali many months back. Himachal Pradesh road transport runs only a few VOLVO buses to Manali from Delhi every evening and we didn't want to miss the seats. You can take this as another TIP.

From Manali to Leh, many Taxis are available with different plans - some offer a canon-ball run that takes you to Leh in 20 hours, leaving Manali at midnight. I do not recommend this. In our case, since the time we started thinking of this journey, we planned to cover the Manali-Leh trip in 2 days. But since we had enough days in hour hand, we made a change to that. On the evening prior to the onset of this very rigid road trip, we decided we would cover this striking stretch of land in 3 days. This gave us not only enough time to get acclimatized and avoid AMS but also the obvious opportunities to 'absorb' the beauty by spending quality time with every splendid peak that fell our way, all the marvelous turns, every awesome view, all the breathtaking scenery. I really mean it when I say it - if yours is the first trip on this stretch, you are going to create memories for your lifetime. This is forever going to be a part of you fond recollections and animated discussions. Trust me.

The Journey

The driver of the taxi we booked was building pressure on us to leave before the day breaks, but we wanted to have one good breakfast before we go for the bare-minimum ones for the next two mornings to follow.

Manali - Rohtang Pass (More or less 50kms): Did I tell you Ladakh translates to the land of the passes. Ladakh has several high altitude mountain passes; among them are the world's top three highest motor-able roads. On the way from Manali, we cross one of those (Tanglang La), among the five passes we meet and fun begins with Rohtang Pass. The 200 meters stretch at the actual Rohtang pass where the families come for picnics and return to Manali, where honeymoon couples come for their short stint with snow games and romantic photography and return to Manali, where fresh air seems to have been disastrously stifled by the smell of horse shit by virtue of pony surfing, is also where you leave more than half of the humanity behind. This point separates the serious from the non-serious traveler. At 13,050ft, Rohtang was a disappointment for me due to those 200 meters I talked about. Apart from that, I enjoyed reaching there, and I thoroughly appreciated leaving it behind.

Rohtang - Kokhsar (19kms): Rohtang to Kokhsar is a downhill journey and the road is bad. You might want to grab a quick meal here. We did. And I’d mention this here, and not any more, that forget thecomfortable beds, splendid meals, and that wonderful-mug-of-coffee for some days now.

Kokhsar - Tandi (38kms): Tandi has the last petrol pump before Leh, which is just a little less than 400 KM from Tandi. So fill that tank up if you are driving. If you are driven, the driver would know to do that anyway.

Tandi - Keylong (9kms)- Jispa ( ? Kms :): Keylong was the initially-planned-night-halt for us but the guest house wasn’t good enough so we went a little ahead and stopped at Jispa, which is a 10 minutes drive away from Darcha. Jispa, we were told, has only to options for spending the night. A so-called luxury hotel, and a guesthouse. We chose the guesthouse, but we’d not know how well or worse it was after all from the one we left behind at Keylong. :) We checked in well before sunset, relaxed a bit, went for a little walk, trying to find out the way to the banks of the river that was flowing almost parallel to the road. We had dinner, played cards, and chatted till the mighty sleep took over. End of day one/three from Manali to Leh.

Darcha - Sarchu (84kms): Day-2 agenda was as relaxed as waking up late, having a good breakfast, leaving for Sarchu, and reaching there while the sun is still shining. Heavens, however, thought of something else. There was not going to be any sunlight for the rest of the day. To begin with, it was a dark day with dark clouds and I said damn. So we’ll miss the breathtaking views for the lack of clear weather. It started raining the moment we left the guesthouse. At Darcha we had to wait for about an hour, inside our cars, before the officials opened the road up, announcing it then ‘safer’ to travel. Later we were to find out why was the transit halted for so long. Roads are mostly in bad shape AGAIn after Darcha, and since it is an ascent, we met the snowfall. Which was beautiful to us, was ‘bad weather’ for locales, and was the reason that the traffic movement was slow. But I tell you this, when I look back the entire journey, those extreme conditions we met, rainfall, snowfall, stuck at various places for hours, are what made the roadtrip an experience of a life time. At the summit of Baralacha La, 16,500ft. if you start feeling exhausted or breathless or too tired, those might be the first signs of the altitude getting the better of you. Take it easy, so exhert yourselves. The Diamox you had shall keep you safe. From Baralacha La it is again a downhill but a rough ride till Bharatpur, after which the road condition starts improving gradually as you approach Sarchu.

Sarchu, our night-halt for day two/three, is at an altitude of 14,000ft. It has nothing more to offer but tents and a militarily base, out of which the former is what should interest you as a traveler. It is a very cold place (ah, of course) but it the blowing wind that makes it all the more difficult to stay out of the tents for longer durations. Also, since in our case there was no sun insight, I had my high tea and went to bed. Woke up, had dinner, went to bed again, praying whole heartedly for God to send the clouds away the next day.

Next morning was a pain in the ass, talking about the washroom and stuff. But the clouds finally gave way to clearer skies and the sunshine. It was an insanely beautiful morning.

Sarchu - Pang (80kms): From Sarchu till the start of Gata Loops roads were good and we moved fast. Gata Loops are a collection of 21 loops that take you to an altitude of 15,302 ft. Next we crossed the third pass on the Manali Leh route, Nakee La, 15,547ft and a few kms. from there is Lachulung La pass situated at an altitude of 16,616 ft. The descent from Lachulung La takes us to Pang, which is a temporary tent settlement. We took a breather here and ate Maggi, the food of delight that should get Nobel prize for eradication of hunger.

Pang - Upshi (125kms): The road from Pang takes us to Moore Plains, which is a flat piece of land located at an altitude of 15,400ft. Road is very bumpy and for us it was a pain as much I think it was for the innova’s suspensions. It was so annoying, we could not really completely enjoy the beauty of this stretch.

After the Moore plains, we started the ascent to the third highest pass in Ladakh, Tanglang La (17,582ft). At the top we found spectacular view of the mountains at both sides of the pass. Sad we could not spend much time here as not only did it start snowing, but also some of us were feeling sick for lack of oxygen.

Descent from Tanglang La was again painful due to bad roads, but spirits picked up as roads became better by the time we reached Upshi.

Upshi - Leh (55kms): Other travelers recommend a small break for a cup of tea/coffee at Upshi before the final push on that pedal to Leh, which is less than an hours drive from Upshi. As planned we reached Leh well before the sunset. Our tour operator, who has become more like a friend as of now, had a hotel booked for us, we checked in, and thus ended out day three/three on the beautiful Manali-Leh road trip.

In Love With Pangong Lake

In Love With Pangong Lake
Click for Pangong Lake :)

My Own Ladakh Experience Part 1 - Driving with God

My Own Ladakh Experience Part 2 - The Hypnotic Pangong Tso