The road to Leh is definitely not for the faint of heart. In addition to its constant state of flux—doublelaning work, landslide-prone stretches and glacial melts that flow across it like a succession of rivers—the harsh, inhospitable, high-altitude desert of Ladakh taxes the brain with its rarefied air. But to brave these desolate environs is the dream of any driving enthusiast worth his salt. The rugged landscape and the thin air here give an adrenaline rush like no other. Apart from the stark landscape, the region is known for its Buddhist monastaries and chortens, and is steeped in Tibetan culture. 

Route: Manali-Tupchiling (106 km)-Jispa (35 km)-Tso Kar (226 km)-Leh (153 km)-Rangdum
(341 km)-Zanskar (103 km)-Kargil (246 km)-Leh (211 km)-Sarchu (251 km)-Manali (225 km)
Distance: 1,225 km
Time: 14 days
States: Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir

Day 1
Route: Manali-Tupchiling

Distance: 106 km
Time: 6 hours

Many attempt the drive up to Leh in two days, but this is not advisable as it doesn’t give you sufficient time for proper acclimatisation. It’s best to halt along the way and take in what the areac has to offer as your body gets used to the thinning air. Needless to say, it is wise to start the drive early to beat the traffic between Manali and Rohtang Pass.

Bharat Aggarwal
Snow-clad peaks and glaciers, Rohtang Pass
Snow-clad peaks and glaciers, Rohtang Pass

On weekends, the 53-km-long journey may take up to 5 hrs because of the number of tourists going up to the pass; on other days, if you’re lucky, you will get there in just over three. Take the NH3/ NH21 northwards towards the pass. Rohtang heralds the edge of the Kullu Valley, short for the ancient kulanthapitha (the end of the habitable world), which signifies how this pass separates the lush Himachali valley carved by the River Beas from barren Lahaul and Ladakh. The Himalayan peaks and glaciers, and the expansive Lahaul Valley that stretches below the road to Rohtang make for stunning spectacles. Note that the weather here is bitterly cold, so dress appropriately – warm thermals, woollen caps, doublelayer gloves, winter boots and at least a couple of thick sweaters should do the trick. In any case, keep a spare jacket or two close at hand. From Rohtang set off towards Gramphu, 15 km away (about an hour’s drive from the pass). Take in the views from the tiny village and stop for refreshments at one of the dhabas here. As you descend into Lahaul from Gramphu, the swift flowing River Chandra coming in from Spiti will join you, running alongside the road until it flows into the confluence of the Bhaga and Chenab rivers. The Buddhist tenor of the land is palpable at every turn—houses are festooned with prayer flags and chortens make regular appearances along the road. About 38 km (a twohour drive) away from Gramphu lies the village of Tupchilling.

Where Rivers Meet
Spend your first night at the charming Drilbu tented retreat at Tupchilling. Overlooking the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers, the campsite enjoys a lovely vantage point over the valley. The steep walk to the oldest monastery in Lahaul, the 1,200-year-old wooden Guru Ghantal Gompa, starts from this camp. A strenuous one-and-a-half- hour-long climb from the camp, it’s the ideal walk to acclimatise yourself, even though you will be gasping for air for most of the way.

Archyushman Dubey
Postcard-pretty Tupchiling village, backed by rugged mountains
Postcard-pretty Tupchiling village, backed by rugged mountains

Things To See & Do
The Tupchiling Monastery at Tunde village, on the Manali-Leh highway, was razed years ago and another has been constructed in its place. The new, three-tiered, wooden Guru Ghantal Gompa is perched on a hill high above the village. Founded by Guru Padmasambhava, the monastery is associated with the Drukpa order and houses dominant idols of Avalokiteshwara (a revered bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism), Guru Padmasambhava and Brijeshwari Devi. Though the upper tier walls are dotted with beautiful murals, the lower ones have been whitewashed.

Day 2
Tupchiling-Jispa
Distance: 35 km
Time: 1.5 hours

You can go monastery hopping between Tupchiling and Jispa. None of these compare to the grand monasteries around Leh, but they still make for a pleasant enough drive or a walk. Along the way is Keylong on the banks of the Bhaga river, the capital of Lahaul and Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh. The Museum of Lahaul and Spiti (Closed Mondays) here has photographs of tourist sites in Lahaul and Spiti, and a collection of traditional attire, instruments, prayer lamps and more. Tayul Gompa, (8 km N), in Satingri Village is a 17th century Drukpa monastery, home to a mani wheel, of which it is said that the wheel turns itself on auspicious occasions. Shishur Gompa, 3 km away, is another 17thcentury Drukpa monastery and home to an intricately carved two-storey wooden verandah, a huge drum-wheel and hand painted wooden panels of Buddhist Tantric imagery. The Khardong Gompa, reached either by road or a 4-hr-trek, was established in the 12th century by the Gelugpa order. The Keylong Valley looks lovely from the garishly renovated Shishur Gompa while the Khardong Monastery, housing male and female monks, offers interesting conversations. From Keylong, follow the road for 22 km (about one hour) to the town of Jispa.

Picturesque Stopover
Jispa is a beautiful spot at the junction of two nullahs that makes for the perfect stopover on the Manali-Leh road. Explore the Gemur Gompa, 4 km away and visit the medieval Khangsar Fort. Jispa also offers trout fishing, pony rides and hikes along mountain trails, and river rafting on the Bhaga.

Bharat Aggarwal
Deepak Tal, Baralacha Pass
Deepak Tal, Baralacha Pass

Day 3
Route: Jispa-Tso Kar
Distance: 226 km
Time: 7 hours

Ahead of Jispa starts a gentle ascent leading up to the clear waters of Deepak Tal and finally the gorgeous Suraj Tal, set in the midst of snow-rimmed peaks, as the road cuts across the windswept vast flats of the high Baralacha La (15,846 ft). Under the canopy of a cobalt blue sky, Bharatpur, nothing more than a cluster of temporary parachute dhabas, proves the ideal spot for a nice breakfast in the sun. Here you will bump into bikers who brave the journey from as far away as Mumbai and Bengaluru. The resonant chord among them all—they didn’t expect the road to be in such a bad condition. Then what makes it so compelling? Perhaps it’s the remoteness, the difficulty in accessing it that lets it retain an other-world feel. During the cold, bleak, winter days, heavy snow blankets them land and obliterates the road itself. This period lasts six to eight months and it is only by the end of April that the army moves in with its snow machines to bring the road to the fore again. Then there is the sheer, stark beauty of a high-altitude desert where shadow, light and heightened colour make for a beautiful contrast, washing the land in shades of gold and ochre, pristine blue and green, purple and red. Considering it is a barren terrain with hardly a tree in sight, these myriad colours of Ladakh almost seem like an anomaly. The descent from Baralacha La is long and winding, finally leading into the flat plains at Sarchu. From Sarchu onwards starts one of the most spectacular and scenic stretches of the Manali-Leh drive. Windswept mountains take on shapes and formations that tickle the imagination with their forms. The road passes through a virtual gallery of nature, carved out by the sheer force of high winds over millennia. The terrain lies bereft of any permanent settlements because it’s uninhabitable, hostile and harsh. You will cross the Himachal border into Jammu and Kashmir ahead of Sarchu. The lovely basin of the Tsarap Chu along the foot of the hill gives way to the steep ascent over the Gata Loops or hairpin bends (21 in all) veering up towards Naki La and further to Lachulung La (16,601 ft). Narrowing towards Kangla Jal (16,003 ft), the road lies hemmed in by vertical rock faces, their ridges looming overhead, opening out at the spectacular gorge below Kangla Jal. There are no electricity poles or cell towers till you get closer to Leh, just the seasonal dhabas, General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) road workers and army posts along a road which is a tiny blip in a landscape where scale is the buzz word. The current road has carpeted itself onto the old caravan trail and even today its weather-beaten condition on many a stretch bespeaks the old trail. From Pang onwards, the road opens out, giving way to the Morey Plains, which encompass the ‘Samad Rokchen’ area, part of the Tibetan-Changthang Plateau that is home to the nomadic Changpas, a weather-beaten, hardy lot – forever on the move with their yaks, sheep and tents. It is only about 65 km (2 hrs) from here to Tso Kar.

Bharat Aggarwal
A frozen Suraj Tal
A frozen Suraj Tal

A Night by the Lake
The Tso Kar basin comprises two principal water bodies—Startsapuk Tso and Tso Kar. It is a major breeding area for birds such as great crested grebe, brahminy duck, bar-headed goose, brown-headed gull and common tern. The Tso Kar plains are also kiang territory. The beautiful tented retreat in the solitary confines of this vast bowl is a treat. At night there are more stars than sky, and the mountains around the lake  look surreal in the moonlight, their snow-capped rims glowing silver. Before the next morning’s start, take a walk around the lake and you will be sure to spot several of the basin’s feathered inhabitants.
Tip: Inner Line Permit required

Day 4-7
Route: Tso Kar-Leh
Distance: 153 km
Time: 5 hours

On the final leg to Leh, the road throws up more distractionsthe grasslands lead into chaotic ridges as you make your way to Tanglang La (17,585 ft), the second highest motorable pass in the world. However, the road here is in a particularly bad shape. After the relentless desolation of the drive past Tanglang La, the vibrant green oasis of the village settlements of Rumtse and Sasoma below the pass come almost as a relief. The resilient Ladakhis here painfully channel glacial meltwater to irrigate their fields of barley and willow groves. Civilisation comes hand-in hand with good tarmac and you can effortlessly drive along the double-lane highway through gorges of red rock and a narrow valley brimming with perky yellow flowers. The valley opens out at Meeru, ahead of which flows the mighty Indus, its basin lined with villages and hilltop gompas. About an hour’s drive from Meeru is Hemis, tucked into the side of a wooded gorge, fed by a clear mountain stream. This gompa of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage is associated with Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Locally known as Changchubling, Hemis is the grandest gompa of Ladakh, founded in the 1630s by Taktsang Repa under King Sengye Namgyal. It is home to the Hemis Tsechu festival, held in July to celebrate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava. The monastery has a souvenir store. Leh is only an hour-anda- half-long drive from here.
Tip:  Take it easy for the first 24 hours in Leh and drink plenty of water. Expect to go to the washroom a lot. Avoid alcohol. For acute mountain sickness emergencies, call Leh’s Sonam Narboo Hospital (Tel: 01982-253629)

The Crown Jewel
Leh, the largest town of Ladakh, is still the cosmopolitan hub that it has been for centuries. But in a radically new way. Earlier, it was traders, missionaries and nomads who once mingled in the Leh bazaar. Today, it welcomes backpackers, holiday makers, mountain ethusiasts, photographers, trekkers and ecologists.

Prashant Panjiar
Numerous statues of Tara and other Bodhisattvas at Thiksey Monastery
Numerous shelved Buddha statues at Thiksey Monastery

Things to See & Do
Ladakh’s and Zanskar’s spectacular landscapes make for several great driving trips from Leh. The drive to Pangong Tso lake, across the 17,998 ft-high Chang La, is spectacular. Visit some of the monasteries along the route and stay overnight at a lovely camp right on the banks of the lake. The lake changes colours like a chameleon, spilling into shades of aquamarine and blue to orange and grey, at times reflecting the sky andm at other times defying it all together. One-third of the Pangong Tso (134 km long and 5 km wide at its widest point) lies in Ladakh, within the Changthang Cold Desert Sanctuary, while the rest falls in Tibet. The setting of the lake provides a splendid paradox—clear blue waters set against the backdrop of vast expanses of brown, cold desert. The marshlands along its western end are a breeding area for a number of waterfowl, including the endangered barheaded geese. The Asiatic wild ass, as well as the yak and the chiru, are found in the surrounding hills. Spangmik is the last point your permit allows you to visit. Or you could visit Thiksey Monastery, 17 km from Leh. The huge mid-15th century Gelugpa monastery of Thiksey covers a whole hillside. Built like Tibet’s Potala Palace, it is the largest structure in Central Ladakh. Inside is a 2-storey representation of the Maitreya Buddha and a dukhang (assembly hall) decorated with old murals. Thiksey’s rooftop offers a stunning panoramic view of the Indus Valley. It is well worth the climb, especially during the two-day Thiksey Gustor Festival in winter. About 2 km to the south are the haunting ruins of Nyarma Gompa, believed to have been built by Rinchen Zangpo in the 11th century. Leh’s Main Bazaar is a great place to soak in the culture of Ladakh. The Jama Masjid at the head of Leh Bazaar was built in the mid-17th century. Diagonally opposite the Jama Masjid lies the goldroofed Soma (new) Gompa, or Leh Jokhang, the central Buddhist temple, which is a simple affair. The warren-like old town, just behind the bazaar, is a shadow of its former self, its character now buried behind acres of concrete. The historic Munshi House, erstwhile home of the king’s secretary, has been restored and is now the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation Centre (Tel: 01982-251554; Cell: 09419178977; lamo.org.in). Check their website for on-going exhibitions and workshops. Continuing uphill from the Bread Gali through the old town towards the palace, stop by Lala’s Café, fronted by a nine-foot Maitreya in local granite. Pay a visit to the five stone images of the Buddha in a windowless room on the ground floor glowing with butter lamps. The old town sits in the shadow of a hill on which is located the Lehchen Pelkhar, or Leh Palace, and above the palace, the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, aka Castle Tsemo. The massive, nine storey royal palace is an imitation of the great Potala in Lhasa. A guide would be a good idea because you can easily miss important sights. Near the palace entrance is the Soma Gompa, built after Dogra rule by Lama Tashi Thampa of Stakna. The Chandazig Gompa, dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, is renowned for its magnificent murals. Below the Chandazig Gompa is the Chamba Gompa, a Maitreya temple. Towards the west of the palace is the Padmasambhava Temple, unmissable for its life-size image of Padmasambhava. From the palace, you could take the path further up the hill to Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, or the Temple of the Guardian Deities. This stretch of the path is rather steep, though, and a taxi might be a better idea. At the very end of Fort Road, towards Skara, stands General Zorawar Singh’s Fort, separated from the crumbling land around by a shallow moat. The Shanti Stupa in Changspa is a relatively new addition to Leh, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985.

Alamy / Indiapicture
Sankar Gompa
Sankar Gompa

Sankar Gompa is a pleasant 2.5 km walk from Leh Bazaar via Chubi, or through the fields beyond Karzoo. From Sankar, continue through the fields into Yurthung for a look at the Tisseru Stupa, dating to the 15th century and now lying in ruins. Leh’s oldest chorten is the yellow Mane Tsermo, surrounded by smaller white chortens adjacent to the Polo Ground. Built by Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, it is over a millennium old. The Tsewang Namgyal Chorten lies within the Army’s Alpha Mess, towards the main bazaar end of Changspa Road. The Moravian Mission Church, near the police station on Changspa Road, is about 120 years old. Close by is the 600-year-old Gomang Chorten, surrounded by several smaller chortens. The two century-old Nezer Gyalpo, or Dharampala temple dedicated to the guardian divinities, is located on a hillock rising above the Muslim graveyard, adjacent to the Leh City Gate. Further south, stop at the over two century- old Chakstal Chorten, built by Gyalpo Tsetan Namgyal. As you drive further south towards Choglamsar, you’ll pass Gyalpo Nyima Namgyal’s 300-year-old mani-wall, which though part of an Army camp, is visible as it abuts the road. Further south from here and past the Golf Course is Choglamsar, which began as and remains a settlement of Tibetan refugees fleeing China across the border, an exodus that continues to this day. The Dalai Lama has a Summer Palace in Choglamsar, which is also home to the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
The ethereal beauty of Pangong Tso
The ethereal beauty of Pangong Tso

Shopping
Curio shops, handicrafts, emporia and bookstores can all be found in Main Bazaar. Moti Bazaar offers beautiful pearl, turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli and silver jewellery. The best buys here, however, are the array of traditional Ladakhi wear—the tall, brocaded hats synonymous with Ladakh, known as tipi; felt shoes with curling toes known as papu; sheepskin-lined, cross button vests known as gongchas, and the brocaded, sheepskin-lined cloak worn by Ladakhi women called lorol. Head down Old Road to buy colourful Chinese crockery. The Ladakhi dried apricot is sold along with other dry fruits of the region all over the market and is highly recommended. Leh has also become famous for ‘Leh berry’ juice, extracted from seabuckthorn fruit that grows wild in the desert sands of the Shayok Valley; it’s said to be antioxidant, anti-aging, memory enhancing and stamina-increasing. The Dzomsa shop is a good place for apricots and seabuckthorn juice. Also pick up churpi, dried hard Tibetan cheese made out of yak milk (the cheese is odourless and comes in small cubes that have to be sucked at for some time before they melt into your mouth and you get the real taste). While in Leh, also stock up on ‘Free Tibet’ T-shirts, Tibet flags and Buddhist paraphernalia such as prayer flags and wheels and embroidered wall hangings. You will also find handicrafts at the Tibetan Refugee Market on Old Leh Road, in the Hemis Complex just north of the Main Bazaar, and at the LEDEG handicrafts shop in Karzoo.

Read Part 2 of the Drive here.