Leh - Manali Highway : Leaving Ladakh

Friday, June 18, 2010

25 May  2008.

The Epic journey from Leh to Manali.

It needs no introduction and words fall short to explain the grandeur of stark desolateness. Who would’ve thought something so minimal could be so imposing. For the seasoned traveler this is one road journey that cannot be missed and for the newbie, this is going to get him/her hooked, for life – beware! 

It goes without saying that there will be stories abound. For instance that fading evening when my brother shouted out telling us to look out the window only to be staring into the glowing green eyes of a pack of Himalayan Wolves or foxes for all I knew. Or earlier that day when we were looking at the dreaded possibility of spending a cold cold night atop Baralacha La owing to a stuck vehicle for two anxious hours. Or even earlier that morning when 5 minutes atop Taglang La in the cold wind at the wee hours when even the sun didn’t rise threatened me with frozen feet for a long time. 


Ladakh is a dream destination for many and it requires meticulous planning to undertake this trip of a lifetime, right? Wrong! You probably wouldn’t believe me if I said this was a spur of the moment decision – to head to Leh from Srinagar instead of heading to Kulu as per our original plan, which by the way translates to total lack of warm clothing. I cannot believe I survived Ladakh with one cotton Jacket. 

The 479 kilometer long Leh – Manali Highway, the quintessential Mecca of Road Trips hasn’t been christened so just like that. It will put you through isolation, high passes, inclement weather and unpredictable obstacles but in the end you emerge with a new appreciation for life, nature and what you thought was a given. This holds true for any adventure but this road trip usually gets a bigger share of attention than others. 

To comfortably finish the journey, you’d require 2 days although some nut cases like me, do this journey in a single day to catch our flight. Let’s see a quick factfile which will be more useful to you than my incessant ramblings. 

Fact File:-

Distance Covered : 479 Kms
Time Required : 2 days
Night Stay Required : Yes
Night Stay Options : Tents at Sarchu or Darcha  or Jispa or Keylong enroute.
Available Transport Options : Hired Vehicles from Taxi Union at Leh or Manali(Qualis, Sumo and such), J&K Transport Buses or Your own vehicle.
Number of Mountain Passes to be crossed : 5, in order as going towards Leh from Manali
Rohtang La(13,050 ft/ 3,978 m) – expect ice walls on road sides and lot of tourist traffic from Manali coming here, 
Baralacha La(16,050 ft/ 4,892m) – expect a definite traffic jam here weather is almost always bad here and some vehicle is always stuck , 
Nakee La(15,547 ft/ 4738m) – no clue why it is not mentioned in my map and on the board at Taglang La, 
Lachung La(16,600 ft/ 5059m) – expect some breathlessness crossing this second highest pass on Leh – Manali Highway
and Taglang La(17,469 ft/ 5,325m) – highest pass on the Leh Manali highway and a very cold place IMHO
Route : Manali – Rohtang La - Khoksar -  Sissu – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa – Darcha – Patseo – ZingZingBar – Baralacha La – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Nakee La – Lachung La – Pang – Debring – Taglang La – Rumptse – Gya – Upshi – Karu – Stakna – Thicksey – Shey – Leh. 
Places of Interest : Gata Loops just before climbing Nakee La - a series of 22 hair pin bends, Moray/Moore Plains before Taglang La – just about the only plain area where you can make your own road, weird soil formations after crossing Pang.

So there you go with all the relevant details. Now coming to my journey, we didn’t have two days to reach Manali as our flight was in two days. Before that I’ve got to tell you what happened at Leh. After we reached Leh from Srinagar, we enquired with our driver if he would take us to Manali as well. But he refused flatly saying no person in his sane mind would offer to take us to Manali by road. Now we were very confused and frustrated thinking how we would reach Delhi in time for our flight. And then we talk to a few more people in Leh and they all say the road is crazy. Maybe they thought we weren’t the roadtripping kind. Confused still, we made up our mind to return to Srinagar and fly to Delhi. Meanwhile the hotel waiter Gopal, told us he was from Manali and he had just come to Leh via road and it is all good. Bright lights were shining somewhere in my head. And that is how we ended up taking the most unexpected yet thrilling journey yet. 

Climbing Up Taglang La from Leh, 3.30 – 6 AM:

All we had was a day so the plan was to start early from Leh. The road from Leh to Taglang La is well laid tarmac so there wouldn’t be any problem driving in darkness. We started at 3 AM and I don’t remember much after that maybe because I was crashing, but I distinctly remember white snow capped peaks all around me when I next opened my eyes. It was 10 minutes past 6 AM and we were climbing up Taglang La. Soon we reached the pass and it was a beautiful morning. Through the looking glass, it looked oh-so-pretty and I could not resist myself from getting out. It was then that it struck with full force – the cold winds. Unbelievably cold it was in the wee hours of dawn. Layers and layers of snow capped peaks were lined up in all directions and a yellow board with nothing written on it made for a pretty sight.  The cold drove me back inside the vehicle but it left me with completely cold feet and fingers. 



More/Moray Plains to Pang , 6 – 8.30 AM:

After crossing one high pass of the Zanskar range, the sudden change of scenery from all white to all brown dusty plains is quite interesting. It was close to two hours we were cruising through More Plains until we reached the weird cone shaped soil formations along the banks of a half frozen stream. We reached Pang at 8.30 AM and stopped over for a quick cuppa and some breakfast. There was no snow around and the sun was shining brightly giving me the much needed warmth. There was stream flowing nearby and I have to tell you it is not pleasant next to a river where there’s a campsite around, if you know what I mean. We stocked up our food supplies with whatever available at the tents – ala Lays and Haldirams packets. Me and my sister were sitting in the back seats of our cab and by now we were completely used be being thrown away or tossed away from our seats constantly. 




Pang to Lachung La, 8.45 – 10 AM:

As we headed from Pang towards Lachung La, we had to cross through roads flooded with the melt water as the day temperature was rising. The weather started to get all foggy as we gained altitude towards the high pass. It was here I spotted the first overturned truck buried in ice, ofcourse all it parts were taken back leaving only the skeleton. There was no super blue sky or stark mountains in contrast, it was all white from now. It was a matter of minutes before mist took over and there was snow everywhere, on all sides, in all dimensions. It even started snowing and it is here that I witnessed my fist snowfall. Yay! We reached Lachung La at 10 AM. 



Bhaga River, Nakee La to Bharatpur, 10.00 AM– 1.00 PM:

After getting down Lachung La, Bhaga river was running by our side and soon we were back in snow climbing Nakee La. We even got down the gata loops and I never realized until I came back that something like that existed. Gata loops are a series of 23 hairpin bends on top of which lies Nakee La (if coming from Manali). We reached Bharatpur by 1 in the afternoon. 



Stuck on Baralacha La, for 2 hours, then to Tandi, 1.00 – 4.30 PM:

An over-confident truck driver thought of taking the side road while crossing the incoming vehicle from opposite side and got stuck in a major pothole causing a massive traffic jam on both sides. Needless to say, there was snow everywhere. Word was that army would take a day to come for rescue and we might be looking at spending a cold night atop Baralacha La. For two hours we waited until the team work of all the drivers got the stuck vehicle moving. Even our vehicle got stuck on the uneven road and it took quite an effort to get it moving. Atlast by 3.15 PM we crossed Baralacha La and reached Tandi by 4.30 PM. It was just now that greenery was spotted after days in the cold desert.





Tandi to Manali, 4.30 -10.00 PM:

After this the scenery takes a positively greener tone with clouds kissing the peaks and huge waterfalls trickling down mountain slopes. But the road conditions go for a complete toss. The road was horrible, bumpy and never ending. Our driver wanted to make up for the lost time stuck on Baralacha La and drove like the Asian guy who drove Peirce Brosnan in the erstwhile Visa Ad. 



It was 7.00 PM now and the light was fading fast. We were climbing towards Rohtang, is what our driver said. We spotted frozen streams enroute and in a matter of minutes, it was all dark except the yellow glow of the headlights. It was now that we spotted some wildlife, foxes I am guessing, with green glowing eyes as the headlights flashed on the animals’ eyes. It was a moon less night, the stars were shining and the Himalayas were glowing in a faint blue florescence. Now this was heights of minimalism after being bombarded with splendid colorful scenery for so many days. No lights, no sound, no colors, just dark shades of blues close to monochromes and a few sparks of stars here and there. It is at times like this one would realize the vastness of mountains. On the distant mountain where the road passed, I could see the trail of a yellow headlamp and somewhere in the sky the trail of a satellite orbiting. It was getting colder and it looked like we were nowhere close to civilization. Finally we spotted signs of civilization at 9 PM. We reached Manali only to be thronged by gazillion hawkers trying to get us into their hotels. Not a welcome change I tell you. We took a dingy room for the night and I had just no inclination at all to wake up early the next day morning for local sightseeing. All I could see was crowd, crowd and more crowd. That evening we took a bus to Delhi and it was not pleasant either. The bus broke down halfway, we were shifted to another bus and people were drunk and it was not good. But we reached Delhi the next morning and reached home by night. 

Oh BTW! You would find it very interesting to see what happened of me by the end of the trip. Sun burn and cold had taken its toll and see what remained. It took me two whole months to get back to looking normal. You see the sun is harsher at this altitudes and it only got worse in the days to come before the tan started to fade. Like they say, the night is darkest just before the dawn. ;)
Was it worth it? You tell me. 


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  1. these are the best pics and very captivating! and the before and after pic shows the worthily effort :)

  2. Nice trip you had. Imagine what it must have been to do this terrain on a bicycle! :)

  3. The before/after pic is damn funny :D could be used for a newspaper caricature ... lol

  4. ## Joshi daniel - thanks for appreciating the effort. :P

    ## Amrit - and totally can imagine the smug look you would've had on your face after finishing the trip. Cycling to Leh is next on the agenda along with Stok Kangri ascent. :)

    ## Aswin - he he...atleast wait until you've returned back.. what if you also come back like this? :P

  5. Almost seemed like a travelog :) Your fact file is more than sufficient for some one planning their itinerary at these places ! Keep writing :)
    Do visit my blog too !

  6. Very beautifully photographed, really another heaven on earth!

  7. ## Vinutha - Welcome to my blog! :)
    I'd be happy if the information helps. I will surely drop by your blog.

    ## S.R.Ayyangar - Welcome and Thank you very much. :)
    Ladakh is indeed nothing short of heaven. Do visit again.

  8. pics are gr8, but the tanned pic looks very scary,

  9. Hey!!!
    I am quiet glued to the snaps you have taken. Excellent description along.
    Keep it up.

  10. ## Anonymous - he he, Thanks and sometimes there's a price to pay for awesomeness. And hence the tan. :)

    ## Ashutosh Mahajan - Welcome to my blog and Thank you. Glad you enjoyed reading this. Do visit again. :)

  11. Dear Wandering Soul,
    Thank you for a brilliant narration and great pics of your Leh to Manali drive. Your vivid write up took me back to my own solo motorcycle ride from Pune to Leh to Srinagar but there was not so much snow then (last week of June). Suraj Tal and Baralacha-La seem totally snowed in in your photos!
    I wrote a book about my journey titled 'One Life to Ride- A Motorcycle Journey to the High Himalayas'. It would be my pleasure to send you a copy. Some info on the book is on the website www.onelifetoride.com
    Thanks again for a wonderful website.
    Ajit Harisinghani, Pune

  12. ## Ajit - I am so very glad my accounts have brought back memories of your journey through these highlands to you. :)
    Ladakh is indeed a wonderful place and the memories remain etched forever. We headed to Ladakh very early in May 2008 which is why we saw so much of snow. And i feel lucky to have seen the snowed in side of these highways.
    I will be honored to read through your experiences. :)

  13. I am amazed by that divine blue color sky....

  14. ## Abhijit - The blue skies of Ladakh are the best! :)

  15. May is a bit too early to drive down, I think, but i am stunned by your photographs. They are exquisite.

  16. Quite awesome, planning for a Leh trip on this December. Your blog is very helpful for us.

  17. Neelima, we're (a group of 10 friends) planning on visiting Leh Ladakh and have worked up an itinerary ourselves. Would love if you could give us an honest feedback on whether it would work or not.

    Here's how it goes:

    Day 1 : Delhi to Kulu flight , 5.55 am and arrival at 7.15 am. Manali to keylong-sarchu [ night in btwn these two places, camping]
    Day 2 : Sarchu to Tsokar [ night at camp ]
    Day 3 : Tsokar to Tsomoriri [ night at camp ]
    Day 4 : Tsomoriri to Pangong Lake [ night at camp ]
    Day 5 : Pangong Lake to Leh [ leave in evening and reach leh at night]
    Day 6 : Leh [ visit monestary, magnetic hill, and city tour, night at LEH]
    Day 7 : Leh to Nubra Valley [ night at camp ]
    Day 8 : Nubra Valley [ night at camp ]
    Day 9, 10 – to be adjusted in between for rafting expedition. Will adjust as per point of start and ending.
    Day 11 – Return to Leh and take flight for Ahmedabad via Delhi. 10 am from Leh to Delhi and Ahmedabad at night around 11 pm.

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  19. The last set of photos so remind me of my trip to Ladakh and the sun-burn... also of the trip to the Andamans ..! khi khi khi ... ;)



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