For 473 long kilometres, the Manali-Leh road clings, slips, slides, punches and wriggles its way through some of the most spectacular terrain in the world. Along the way it crosses four high passes, fords streams and rivers and clings precariously to tumbling mountain surfaces. It follows in the tracks of an ancient caravan route that went from the plains of Punjab to the highlands of Ladakh, and then on to Central Asia. The current road is carpeted onto the old caravan trail.

The caravans have now been replaced by tankers carrying Army fuel and trucks laden with supplies for Leh, but the route is still treacherous. Every year, landslides bury the road, and every year it is laboriously resurrected. From June to mid-September, there’s lots of coming and going, and small camps spring up at unlikely places. And a journey which once took a week or more and was an ordeal, we were now all set to cover in two exciting days.

We crossed the prayer-flag strewn bridge on the Beas, getting away from the noise of Manali. Our SUV idled restlessly behind a kilometre-long queue of cars at Gulaba, a particularly mud-slide prone spot on the climb to Rohtang Pass. There are numerous tea shops and dhabas at Kothi and Marhi en route. Above us, the road snaked its way between sheer walls of rock that rose on either side, leading up to the mighty pass. The ‘road’ on the last 10 km to Rohtang Pass is just slush and mud but once across Rohtang, the magnificent Central Lahaul Massif of the Great Himalaya comes into view.

Ahtushi
Manali-Leh road
Manali-Leh road

The descent into Lahaul was steep and dusty, down scree- and boulder-strewn mountains. The green shades of Manali were replaced by shades of brown and rust, interspersed occasionally by a few willow trees. A rugged line of snow peaks lingered in the backdrop. As the road leveled out, the settlement of Gramphoo appeared on a plateau suspended above the raging Chandra River. The road now follows the Chandra all the way to Tandi, where it meets the Bhaga to become the Chandrabhaga, or Chenab. Soon villages started appearing along the road, with a mandatory chai shop and small fields slapped onto mountainsides. A little before Tandi, a road leads up to the village of Tupchilling, which is an option for a night halt. Tandi has the last petrol pump before Leh. We tanked up, then crossed the bridge over the Bhaga, towards Keylong.

Soon, Keylong appeared on the horizon, a large patch of green sprawling above and below the road. The road beyond turned and twisted along the river till we arrived at Jispa. Here, the Bhaga River spread itself out languidly across a vast bed split into many channels by islands of mud.

Climbing the Great Himalaya

After Jispa, the road ascended steeply. The snows came closer, till at Deepak Tal, about 10 km from Jispa, we were almost level with them. Peaks glimmered in the glassy waters of the lake. The road climbed relentlessly on, and with every loop the mountains flattened out, till at Baralacha La, at a height of 16,500 ft, they seemed like large dunes of snow, cradling Suraj Tal. We braved the wind at the pass for a photo-op, for we were standing on the shoulders of the Great Himalayan Range itself. Only Zoji La on the Srinagar-Leh Highway offers an easier crossing of the world’s highest mountain range.

Off-roading in the Lahaul Himalaya, near Keylong
Off-roading in the Lahaul Himalaya, near Keylong

The road levels out near Sarchu, traversing a plain ringed by peaks. On one side of the plains, at the base of the mountains, flows the Tsarap Chu. To the left of the road at this popular night halt, a series of camps spread out, shielded from each other by obtruding mountain ridges.

Beyond Sarchu, the road starts climbing again, just beyond the interstate border. We wound our way up the Gata Loops. Close to the Naki La pass, stalactites of ice hang precariously from rocky overhangs on the road. At the Lachulung La pass, we were at one of the highest points of our journey. In the thin air at this altitude, our SUV started belching thick diesel fumes.

From here, it was all downhill. The mountains turned gnarled and weathered. The wind had created hollows — leaving freestanding rock gateways. At the Kanglajal Pass, streams of water flowed down the road. And then we turned around a hill and the vast Morey Plains stretched out beyond us. Four kilometers wide, 40 km in length, at a height of over 14,000 ft, they lie along the western edge of Tibet’s vast Changthang plateau.

The turn-off to shimmering Tso Kar Lake lies almost at the fag end of the Morey Plains near Debring, where a small signboard will direct you to the lake over a 15-km dirt track. With only a few tented camps on its banks, the salt lake makes for a solitary and beautiful night halt. At night there are more stars than sky.

Finally — the Indus Valley

Lesley A Esteves
Traffic jam at Baralacha La
Traffic jam at Baralacha La

On the final leg to Leh, the road threw up more distractions — the grasslands led into chaotic ridges as we made our way up to Tanglang La (17,585 ft), the second-highest motorable pass in the world. After the treeless desolation of the journey, the vibrant green oasis of the village settlements of Rumtse and Sasoma, below the pass, came almost as a relief. Civilisation came hand in hand with good tarmac and we effortlessly swerved along the double-lane highway through gorges of red rock and a narrow valley. The valley opened out at Meeru, ahead of which flowed the mighty Indus, its basin lined with villages and hill-top gompas. The journey from here to Leh runs all along the Indus gorge.

Gradually the traffic picked up and soon the familiar sights of Ladakh started appearing. The Stakna Monastery stood like a lonely sentinel over the valley, the ruins of the Shey Palace brooded in the fading light and in the distance, the bright lights announcing our arrival at that most fabulous oasis along the old caravan route — Leh.

STOPOVERS

Many do the Manali-Leh drive in two days, making a night halt at just under half the distance at Sarchu on the Himachal-J&K border. But this is not advisable as Sarchu’s height of over 14,000 ft is not conducive to gradual acclimatisation. It’s best to break journey before Darcha and the climb up the Great Himalaya. You can choose between Tupchilling, Keylong and Jispa. On day 2, with an early start you can easily cover the distance to Leh. But if you have the time to spare, spend another night at beautiful Tso Kar.

Tupchilling, Tandi

The Drilbu Retreat (Tel: 01902-250083, Mob: 09816022839; Website: planethimalaya.in; Tariff: ₹2,800-3,200) at Tupchilling is a lovely tented site overlooking the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers at Tandi. The retreat is a cluster of simple bamboo huts with attached loos. Food is served buffet-style.

Keylong

Capital of Lahaul and Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh, Keylong has the most accommodation on offer. Hotel Dekyid (Tel: 01900-222217, Mob: 09418433766; Tariff: ₹2,500-3,000) enjoys a quiet location, perched high above the Bhaga, well away from the traffic. It has a multi-cuisine restaurant and running hot water. Other options here include: Tashi Deleg (Tel: 222450, Mob: 09418063677; Tariff: ₹1,500-2,550); Valley View (Tel: 222666; Tariff: ₹1,000-1,500); and HPTDC’s Hotel Chander Bhaga (Tel: 222393, 222247; Website: hptdc. nic.in; Tariff: ₹1,900-3,100).

Jispa

This beautiful spot is 22 km ahead of Keylong. The River Bhaga flows by the village. Hotel Ibex Jispa (Tel: 01900-233203-04, Mob: 098160 36860; Website: hotelibexjispa.com; Tariff: ₹3,000) is the best option here with river-facing rooms, good food and hot showers. Padma Lodge (Delhi Tel: 011-40580334-35; Web: campsofladakh.com; Tariff: ₹2,625-4,000) is another good option. It offers 19 rooms and 10 Swiss tents.

Sarchu

Located at a height of 14,501 ft, Sarchu is a high camp bereft of any habitation except for the tented retreats that come up in peak tourist season. It’s also a place where acclimatisation blues hit many a traveller, hence we recommend a halt here only on the return journey.

Adventure Camp (Manali Tel: 01902-250083, Mob: 09816056115, 09816022839; Web: planethimalaya. in; Tariff: ₹2,400-3,200) is well located. The tents have attached loos and hot water is available on demand. Other options are Antrek Camp (Manali Tel: 252292, 254492, Mob: 09816022292; Website: antrek. co.in; Tariff: ₹2,600-4,200) opposite Sarchu Temple and Goldrop Camp (Delhi Tel: 011-40580334-35; Web: campsofladakh.com; Tariff: ₹3,500-4,000). Both have attached baths.

Tso Kar

Pasturland Camp (Delhi Tel: 011-40580335; Website: campsofladakh. com; Tariff: ₹3,740-4,180) has excellent tents and good food. Tso Kar Eco Resort (Mob: 09622965002, 09906060654; Tariff: ₹4,200) with 10 rooms is another good option.

Tips for the road

Petrol With only one petrol pump after Manali, at Tandi, 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 Tso Kar before Leh

Repairs Mechanics are hard to come by between Leh and Manali, so check your spare tyre and get your vehicle serviced before the drive. Ideally carry a foot pump as there’s nowhere to fill air in the tyres, and, if offroading, a tow rope in case your car gets stuck

Acclimatisation Visitors driving to Leh may fare better than those flying into Leh, but rules of acclimatisation still apply: drink plenty of water, avoid over exertion and get medical help at the first sign of symptoms. The Army posts along the way can also assist you with First Aid. If altitude sickness is severe, the only solution is to descend immediately

Medicines There are no chemists en route so carry your own first-aid kit (most camps don’t keep medicines either). Pack 20 tablets of Diamox for altitude sickness. Also carry broad-spectrum antibiotics, oral rehydration packets, cold medication, anti-nausea medicines, water purification tablets and bandages. In an emergency, approach the closest Army post Outsourcing the drive If you don’t want to drive yourself, tour operators in Manali can organize the entire trip for you. One excellent operator in Manali is Planet Himalaya’s Adventure Camp (Tel: 01902-250083; Mobile: 09816056115, 09816022839; Website: planethimalaya.in). Alternatively, try Himalayan Adventurers (Tel: 253050; Mob: 09816023004; Website: himalay anadventurers.com). The standard rate is about ₹17,000-20,000 for a 2D/ 1N or 3D/ 2N drive, including fuel, driver’s allowance, toll tax, etc, but excluding food, water and other expenses

ROUTE AND DISTANCES

Manali to Leh 473 km

Manali to Palchan: 10 km

Palchan to Marhi: 29 km

Marhi to Rohtang Pass: 12 km

Rohtang Pass to Gramphoo: 17 km

Gramphoo to Sissu: 18 km

Sissu to Tandi: 22 km

Tandi to Keylong: 8 km

Keylong to Jispa: 25 km

Jispa to Darcha: 7 km

Darcha to Patseo: 11 km

Patseo to Baralacha La: 31 km

Baralacha La to Sarchu: 33 km

Sarchu to Lachulung La: 52 km

Lachulung La to Pang: 24 km

Pang to Morey Plains: 24 km

Morey Plains to Tanglangla: 40 km

Tanglangla to Rumtse: 31 km

Rumtse to Upshi: 31 km

Upshi to Karu: 11 km

Karu to Choglamsar 29 km

Choglamsar to Leh: 7 km

FAST FACTS

When to go The passes on the route are open by early May and close in mid-October, but the best time to do this drive is from mid-May to mid-September, beyond which it is too cold

What to wear Carry airy cottons for the day, a windcheater and a raincoat. For all the high passes, you’ll need a windcheater, heavy jacket and gloves. At Tso Kar, it can rain (or snow) without warning, so have a waterproof jacket and a pair of long johns at hand. Woollens, thermal innerwear and gloves are essential on both the drive and in Ladakh

Permits An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required for Tso Kar; get it before you leave. Any registered travel operator in Manali or Ladakh can arrange the permit for you for about ₹100 per person. Carry at least six photocopies of the permit, as you need to deposit a copy at each checkpost along the route

STD codes Manali 01902, Leh 01982