Road Trip: The Manali-Leh Drive Part 2

Road Trip: The Manali-Leh Drive Part 2

Stay on the road and explore Zanskar and the Indus Valley

17 Min Read

In Part 2 of the classic trans-Himalayan drive from Manali to Leh and back again, we travel to Zanskar and Kargil, before making our way back to Leh for a round of site seeing, shopping and feasting before the return leg of the drive from Leh to Manali. Read Part 1 of the drive here.

Route: Leh-Rangdum
Distance: 341 km
Time: 8 hours

Leave Leh in the wee hours of the morning for Rangdum on the NH1D. The drive to Kargil is easy, though you will be met by long convoys of army trucks that might delay you. Famous as the focus of an armed conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999, Kargil is the mountainous town of Kargil District. On the banks of the Suru river, it is the biggest stop on the Leh-Srinagar route and the entry point for Zanskar. The cultural change after Mulbekh, which is the last predominantly Buddhist settlement, is drastic. The drive into Zanskar is a challenge, especially the stretch from Kargil to Padum. It’s almost entirely unsealed and has loose gravel and dust. On the upside, Thangbu onwards, the scenery that unfolds along the way is simply magnificent, with the Nun and Kun massifs looming over Thangbu, quaint villages and gompas alongside, and glacial tongues falling at steep angles along the road. And after the Muslim villages of the Suru Valley is Rangdum.

Village in the Hills
A small white chorten indicates Rangdum. The 15th-century Rangdum Monastery houses a museum with a collection of thangkas, masks and old manuscripts. Spend a night here before driving to Padum in the Zanskar Valley.

Unstable ice in late winter, Zanskar

Route: Rangdum-Zanskar
Distance: 103 km
Time: 3.5 hours

Leave Randum early the next morning for Padum. The road descendes into the lush fields of Zanskar below the Pensi La. The journey from Kargil to Padum, over the 14,500-ft Pensi-La, is the trip’s highlight, with emerald-green fields, yellow spring flowers, and as you climb higher, glaciers and sheer crags of snow-covered mountain. The Durung Drung Glacier to the right makes a fantastic whiplash of smooth ice, which snakes its way into the valley along the road.

Hidden Valley
Snowed under for over seven months in a year, when its denizens can reach the outside world only by walking on the frozen Zanskar river, the remote Zanskar Valley is made up of two valleys, the Stod or Doda and the Tsarap or Lugnak, which meet to form the Zanskar river at Padum. The electricity situation in Zanskar is dismal. Thanks to lack of accommodation on the main crowded street, you will find lodging options in the adjoining Pibithing village. The village looks out onto the hilltop façade of the Guru Gompa. Spend two days here, going on drives and walks to nearby gompas, and zipping on the gleaming stretch of road coming up to connect Zanskar with Nimmu.

Things to See & Do
Padum, the main town of Zanskar, is a small dwelling. It is also a hub for the many legendary treks — southeast into Darcha in Himachal; southwest over the Omasi La pass into Kishtwar; north over the Zanskar Range to Lamayuru or Hemis. Or do the Chadar Trek (mid-January to mid- February) over the frozen Zanskar river. The river also offers excellent rafting options and includes some Grade IV rapids. Pibithing Monastery, 2 km north of Padum, offers expansive views. Close by is the Dalai Lama’s residence, the Photang. Sani Gompa (9 km) is reputed to be the oldest monastery in Zanskar and has some attractive murals. The Kanika Stupa here is associated with the Kushana emperor Kanishka, with a small shrine exhibiting old icons and murals. Dzongkhul Gompa (30 km), is set in an isolated location at the mouth of a valley that leads to the Umasi La on the Great Himalayan Range. Karsha Gompa (11 km), the largest monastery in Zanskar, has a three-storey-high image of the Maitreya Buddha. Stongde Gompa (12 km), the second-largest monastery in Zanskar, offers gorgeous views. The 17th-century Bardan Gompa (11 km), located on a hilltop, has an enormous prayer wheel, along with some fading but beautiful murals. Nestled under a cavern, the Phugtal Gompa (70 km, no road access) seems to grow out of the mountainside. Across the Zanskar river, 31 km NE of Padum, Zangla Fort is a square, three-storeyed structure. This was once where half of Zanskar was ruled from.

Route: Zanskar-Kargil; Kargil-Leh; Leh-Sarchu; Sarchu-Manali
Distance: 246 km, 211 km, 251 km, 225 km
Time: 7 hours, 5 hours, 8 hours, 8 hours

After two days of taking in the beauty of the Zanskar Valley, start your drive back towards Manali. It is best to divide the drive into four parts, with night halts at Kargil, Leh and Sarchu. You will be better acquainted with the roads by now, so the drive back will not be as surprising as the drive to Zanskar; it will only be the beautiful surrounding that will take your breath away. From Padum, retrace the route back to Kargil and spend a night there. Take the NH1D from Kargil to Leh for another night at this beautiful town. From Leh, follow the Manali-Leh Expressway to Sarchu.

Virgin Territory
Located at a height of 14,501 ft, Sarchu is a high camp bereft of any habitation except for the tented retreats that are to be found to the right side of the road, in a single row, in peak tourist season. This almost uninhabited spot is the last Himachali outpost before you cross back into Himachal Pradesh. Sarchu is a good stopover for motorists heading back to Manali — a halt here on the way to Leh isn’t advisable because of Sarchu’s high altitude that takes time to get acclimatised to. After spending a rejuvenating night here, start you drive back to Manali. Leave at the break of dawn since traffic around the Rohtang Pass might increase your driving time by over three hours. As you drive out of Lahaul into the Kullu Valley, the verdant plains will stun you for several moments after having spent the better part of two weeks in the white, grey and brown terrain of Ladakh. Needless to say, it will not be a trip that will be easily forgotten.

View of Karsha Gompa, the largest monastery in Zanskar

On the Road

The Route
The drive follows the Manali- Leh Expressway all the way to Leh, except for detours on the way to Tso Kar and the monasteries in Kipling. From Leh, the NH1D leads to Kargil, from where a road branches off to the Zanskar Valley.

Tips and Tricks
The harsh climate takes its toll on the Leh-Manali road every year and it appears as if diligent GREF workers are constantly servicing the Manali Leh stretch. The highway ahead of Manali is un-lit all along and it’s best to start early, by 6.00 am, in order to reach your destination in time. Take into account the acclimatization drill by roping in extra days, and go on walks in Lahaul as no less than three high passes await you on the route ahead. With only one petrol pump after Manali, at Tandi in Lahaul, you need to tank up — as well as carry a spare 50-litre sturdy jerry can for fuel — especially if you’re planning on visiting the Tso Kar and Tso Moriri lakes before Leh. Remember to store fuel before heading into Zanskar as well since there are no petrol pumps beyond Kargil on this route. Mechanics and puncture repair shops are also hard to come by along most of these drives (except in main hubs such as Leh, Kargil and Manali), so check the condition of your spare tyre and give your vehicle a good servicing before starting the drive. Ideally, carry a foot pump. A 4-wheel drive is great if you want to indulge in off-roading. In Ladakh, with a specialised vehicle in the form of a high clearance 4-wheel drive, you could navigate the vast, sandy Morey Plains, the riverbeds around Tso Kar and all other muddy, gravelly, snowed in or rocky stretches that take your fancy. Along the Gata Loops stretch leading up to Naki La, there is a steep belt of gravel road, which cuts through the loops vertically, making for a steep ascent or descent. Ascending is not recommended, as it will put unnecessary strain on your vehicle. But descending in a good 4WD can be fun. Also, do take care where the sand is too thickly piled, for you might end up needing a rope to pull your vehicle out. Inner Line Permits are needed to visit Khardung La, the Nubra Valley and the lakes. Your travel agent can arrange these at ₹150 per person per destination and fax or send you a scanned copy via mail. These permits can also be obtained from the Collector’s Office in Leh, situated at the far end of the Polo Ground, from where they are given free for a fixed duration of a week. If you intend to stay for more than a week, you need to apply for two permits. Carry at least six photocopies of the permit, as you need to deposit a copy at each checkpost along the route. Seasonal dhabas are to be found along the road from Manali to Leh offering passable Indian and Tibetan food, eggs and Maggi. Carry some chocolates, biscuits and other snacks. Also, a jerry can for drinking water, which you can fill up at hotels, instead of buying Bisleri bottles. The boiled filter water served in most hotels is just fine. If you plan on having picnics or camping, carry utensils instead of disposable plastic ware. Please do remember to carry back trash.

STOPOVERS

TUPCHILING

Where to Stay & Eat
The Drilbu Retreat (Tel: 01902-250083, Cell: 09816056115; Tariff: ₹3,200-4,400) at Tupchiling is a cluster of simplyfurnished bamboo huts with attached loos. It also has a common dining hut where food is served buffet-style.

JISPA

Where to Stay & Eat
The Ibex Hotel (Cell: 09816036860; Tariff: ₹3,200), which has river-facing rooms as well as a multicuisine restaurant and Padma Lodge (Cell: 09418033211; Tariff: ₹3,750-4,650, with meals) are the best options. There’s also a small PWD Guest House (Tel: 01900-222276; Tariff: ₹450) by the Bhaga.

TSO KAR

Where to Stay & Eat
Stay in tents at the Pasturland Camp (Contact: Camps of Ladakh; Tel: 011- 40580334-35, Cell: 09419178325; Tariff: ₹4,600, with meals).

LEH

Where to Stay
Around Leh Bazaar is the Old Ladakh Guest House (Tel: 01982-252951; Tariff: ₹350-900), which claims to be Leh’s first hotel. But that honour is also claimed by Hotel Yak Tail (Cell: 09419178590, 09906990909; Tariff: ₹2,900-4,500). Hotel Grand Himalaya (Cell: 09906991989, 09419208786; Tariff: ₹500-18,900) is a popular place. Hotel Lingzi (Tel: 252020, Cell: 099103 84589; Tariff: ₹5,200-7,500) is built in the traditional Ladakhi style.

On Old Road: Hotel Singge Palace (Tel: 253344, Cell: 09999777122, Gurgaon Tel: 0124-4296269; Tariff: ₹5,700-16,700), has a lovely, sunny terrace. Hotel Chospa (Tel: 252045, Cell: 09419177245; Tariff: ₹1,500-2,000) opposite Sengge Palace, has a homely ambience. Spic ‘n Span (Tel: 252765, 253007; Tariff: ₹4,070-9,000), has a beautiful, traditional timber-and-stone Ladakhi façade. The family-run Nezer View Guest House (Tel: 251437, 253083, Cell: 09906992530; Tariff: ₹1,200-2,000), offers a serene ambience. Hotel Lasermo (Tel: 252313, 257778, Cell: 09797497724, 09419178084; Tariff: ₹6,200-8,800) is a good up-market option. In Changspa, there’s Kang-Lha- Chen (Tel: 252144, 252909; Tariff: ₹5,500, with meals). The Mogol Hotel (Tel: 253439, Cell: 09419177016; Tariff: ₹4,600-6,200, with two meals) belongs to the famous Colonel Stobdan Kalon, who first led the way for the Army through the Nubra Valley to Siachen Glacier. Omasila (Tel: 252119; Tariff: ₹5,200 7,800, with meals) offers sweeping views of the Stok range. The Oriental Hotel & Guest House (Tel: 253153, Cell: 09419178774; Tariff: ₹700- 10,000), one of the finest in Leh, is a family-run, hospitable place. The LEDEG Hostel (Tel: 253221; ledeg.org; Tariff: ₹250 per bed, ₹280 for meals) below the Shanti Stupa offers visitors a lovely eco-friendly experience.

Oriental Guest House in Chanspa

In Karzoo: there is Glacier View Guest House (Tel: 253503; Tariff: ₹800- 1,000). Ser-Thi Traveller’s Home (Tel: 253476, Cell: 09419178327; Tariff: ₹2,000-2,500) and Maryul Guest House (Tel: 252994; Tariff: ₹1,000-1,200, with breakfast) are decent, affordable choices. Snow View Ladakh (Cell: 09419178598, 07198706294; Tariff: ₹3,600-5,700, with meals), is popular with birdwatchers, scholars and writers. Hotel Royal Ladakh (Tel: 251646, 257576; Tariff: ₹4,160-5,400) offers some truly beautiful views.

In Yurthing and Chubi: The Druk (Tel: 251702/ 24, Cell: 09419178448; Tariff: ₹7,500-11,500, with meals) is a luxury option. Silver Cloud Guest House (Tel: 253128; Tariff: ₹800- 4,500) and Chubi’s Norbulinga Guest House (Tel: 252941, Cell: 09419286222; Tariff: ₹600-1,200) are good, familyrun places.

In Tukcha and Fort Road: Jigmet Guest House & Hotel (Tel: 253563, Cell: 09622965846; Tariff: ₹1,400-2,200) and Raku Guest House (Tel: 258897, Cell: 09419372679; Tariff: ₹1,800-2,900) are good budget options. Fort Road’s Hotel Lharimo (Cell: 09419178233; Tariff: On request) offers a homely ambience and friendly service. Yasmin Hotel (Tel: 251071, Cell: 09622966292; currently closed for renovations) makes for a fantastic getaway. Padma Guest House (Tel: 252630, 255876, Cell: 09419178171; Tariff: ₹4,299) has lovely views of the Stok range.

In Skara and Sheynam: experience old-world charm at the Shambhaala (Tel: 251100, 253500, Cell: 098100 35145; Tariff: ₹5,000-8,000, with two meals). The Grand Dragon (Tel: 257786, 255866, Cell: 09906986782; Tariff: ₹8,800-15,000) is an excellent up-market option. The JK Tourism Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 252297, 252010, 252094; Tariff: ₹720-1,000) situated near the airport is a pleasant as well as comfortable option.

Kashmiri food at Budshah Inn

Where to Eat
One of Leh’s most atmospheric joints is Lala’s Café, in the old town. The Kashmiri food at Budshah Inn, the pizzas at Il Forno, the steak with chips at the Leh View Rooftop Restaurant, and the sandwiches at La Terrasse are all excellent. For good Tibetan food, try Amdo Café, Amdo Food, Wok Tibetan Kitchen (Main Bazaar Road), or Devi Tibetan Restaurant (near the State Bank of India). Do not miss the pies and cakes at Pumpernickel German Bakery on Zangsti (Sabzi Mandi) Road or My Secret Recipe. On Fort Road, try the Ladakhi breakfast at Dzomsa, the avocado lassi at Penguin Garden Restaurant and the biryani at Hotel Ibex. Dreamland Restaurant is one of the oldest establishments serving superb Kashmiri, Chinese and Tibetan food, and Summer Harvest excels at Tibetan. Do not miss the Tibetan hot pot at Tibetan Kitchen. Other good places are the open-air Open Hand, Chopsticks Noodle Bar at the Raku Complex and the quirky Gravi T Café. Also try the cheese-and-potato momos at the vegetarian Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant. At Changspa Road are Café Jeevan, with its excellent terrace, the World Garden Café and Zen Garden, popular with backpackers. Bon Appetit is the only fine-dining option in Leh.

PANGONG TSO

Where to Stay & Eat
In Spangmik
, Wonderland Tourist Camp has tents (Contact Sumico Travel, Leh Tel: 01982-260630, Cell: 09906985353; Tariff: ₹3,800, with meals).

In Lukung: There is Martsemik Eco Resort and Camping (Cell: 094191 77658; Tariff: ₹5,400-6,500, with meals) as well as the Pangong Inn (Cell: 09958150043, 09419862542; Tariff: ₹5,100-5,800). Pangong Tso Padma Hotel offers 6 double rooms at ₹1,000 each. Reservations are not possible as yet; you can just land up and try your luck.

In Tangtse village: Try the Changla Guest House (Cell: 09469567990; Tariff: ₹1,500-2,000). Dothguling Guest House has double rooms (Tariff: ₹500-800 with an attached bath; Email: dothguling@yahoo.com). Namseh Guest House also offers double rooms (Tariff: ₹500-800; Email: jigmit-80@rediffmail.com). Zam ser ling Guest House with its double rooms (Cell: 09419218306; Tariff: ₹1,500) is the most expensive. Bookings for all these guesthouses can be done through Dreamland Treks and Tours (see box on p48). Given just how remote the lake is, it is somewhat surprising that there is some choice when it comes to food. A small restaurant near the beach serves basic meals. So does Khusbhoo Army Mess Restaurant. Padma Hotel serves burgers, pasta as well as Tibetan food. Pangong Inn has a small restaurant with multicuisine food. Martsemik Ecotourism’s menu has over 50 dishes.

THIKSEY

Where to Stay & Eat
The seasonal Chamba Thiksey Camp (Gurgaon Tel: 0124-4062480- 81, Cell: 09810265781; Tariff: Camp for 6D/ 5N; on request) is operational from the months of mid-June to mid-September. Skalzang Chamba Hotel and Restaurant (Tel: 01982-267385, 267004; Tariff: ₹4,600-4,950) is run by Thiksey Gompa. Other options are Kalon (Tel: 267029), Gyappa Thaiktree (Cell: 09419372008; Tariff: ₹900-1,200, with meals) and Kongma Nono (Cell: 09622980500; Tariff: ₹1,200). There is also Tara Homestay (Cell: 09906985911; Tariff: ₹1,000-1,200), around 3 km from the monastery.

Luxurious bedroom at Chamba Thiksey Camp

RANGDUM

Where to Stay & Eat
The Nun Kun Camp (Tel: 01982-251673, Cell: 09419178401; Tariff: ₹5,600, with meals) is close to the Suru river. There is also a J&K Tourist Bungalow (Tariff: ₹400) here.

SARCHU

Where to Stay & Eat
Adventure Camp (Tel: 01902-250083, Cell: 09816056115; Tariff: ₹2,800) is well-located and ideal for some lovely walks on the flat plains of Sarchu, or for off-roading. Other choices are Goldrop Camp (Delhi Tel: 011- 40580334; Tariff: ₹3,500-4,500) and Antrek Camp (Tel: 252292, 254492; Tariff: ₹1,500 per person).

Driving Options
This itinerary should ideally not be cut short so that you have enough time for acclimatisation. One interesting drive to opt for, if starting from Delhi, is to return to Delhi through Kargil, Srinagar and Jammu. Srinagar is approximately 430 km away. You drive through Lamayuru, Mulbekh, Kargil, Drass, Zoji La, Sonmarg and Ganderbal to Srinagar on NH1D.


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