Manali to Leh: Road to
AIR travel has turned Leh into a popular "tourist destination". Board the plane in Delhi or Chandigarh and one hour later you are there. But what you gain by way of ease of journey is more than offset by the pleasure of adventure that you completely miss. Ninety per cent of the thrill of this particular trip lies in the scenes that you encounter on the Manali-Leh road. The drive is your one chance to have all the excitement of, as it were, visiting another planet, without having to leave the earth! It is imperative to utilise that opportunity at least once in a lifetime.
Don't be overwhelmed by stories that describe in detail about how tough it is. I recently did the stretch with my family. There are perhaps more casualties on the Delhi-Ambala highway than on this 475-km road. You should also not be satisfied with the superlative descriptions given by frequent travellers. No words can describe the majesty and beauty of this cold desert. You have to savour it all yourself.
Do banish your fears about this particular route, but at the same time, do not underestimate the raw, hostile elements. Exceptionally high altitude (you climb to 17,582 ft) and freaky weather (we faced a blinding snowfall in the month of June!) make a deadly combination. Never go without due preparations. Here are some handy tips.
Start advance training. Jog, cycle or swim. Prepare your muscles for the arduous journey. Once there, don't even think of exerting yourself. Walk slowly, at least to begin with. Acclimatise yourself fully to the low oxygen level before deciding to climb even the smallest hillock.
Drink lots of fluids.
That does not mean alcoholic drinks. In fact, cut them short. They can
be unusually heady. Keep enough woollens. The weather changes its mind
frequently. Carry extra stock of moisturising creams and sunscreen
lotions. This is one place where if you sit in the doorway with one
leg inside and the other out, you can get frostbite and sunburn at the
Have twice as many camera films as you intend to expose. The stark beauty of the barren hills turns you camera crazy. Also, carry enough food items and water with you. You never know when you will get stranded.
You can undertake the journey only from July to September. During the rest of the year, the area is snowed in. This year, the passes opened a little earlier, in mid-June, and we were among the first visitors.
The overall feeling on seeing these barren mountains is that the Creator has decided to turn into a surreal sculptor. What is even more amazing is the fact that the scenery changes at every turn that your vehicle takes, which is every minute or so. Colour coordination is perfect. Every hillock has a hue of its own.
Another feeling that strikes you is that if at all we are foolish enough to have a nuclear war, this is what the world will come to look like. Imagine being surrounded by mountains for as far as you can see and not a blade of grass anywhere!
Some do the challenging trip on motorcycles. Others even use bicycles. The three of us my wife, nine-year-old son and myself used a more sedate mode of transport: a Himachal Tourism bus. Jeeps are also there for hire, but in case of a government bus, you are better assured of backup in case of a breakdown. This caution came in handy in our case.
Being the only Indians among 23 passengers was an eerie feeling, but the nationalities melted soon enough. In fact, we became unofficial hosts because the bus driver and conductor spoke little English.
The bus started from Manali at 5 am. The journey was to take full two days, with a night halt in tented accommodation at Sarchu, the last HP outpost beyond which lay Jammu and Kashmir, 222 km from Manali and 263 from Leh.
By the time it was daylight, we were clambering our way up to the Rohtang Pass. We had been there before but its seismograph-like curves are always a source of delight and fear.
About 70 km of zigzag journey up and down the majestic mountain brought us to Koksar, the first locality of Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. Foreigners have to register themselves here, a process that is repeated several times along the way.
Lahaul-Spiti used to be an impoverished tribal district of Himachal Pradesh till a few decades back, but the opening of the road has brought considerable prosperity to it. Virgin land yields potatoes, rajmaah and peas aplenty. It is another matter that when you sit down to have a meal, you mostly get chawal and daal or watery curry.
There is greenery galore but oxygen is short. The height of the mountains amazes you. You have to turn your head upwards as if you are doing Yoga, to look at the peaks and bring the neck down to the maximum to look at their lowest point. The prospect of climbing these mountains gives you vertigo; yet you don't let the nervousness show. A thousand waterfalls of milk-white water cascading down from accumulated snow help you maintain an amazed look instead of a dazed one.
The journey passed off uneventfully till the bus stopped at 11 am at a roadways workshop short of Keylong for "about 10 minutes of maintenance work". We were sure that 10 minutes would extend to half an hour and ordered tea leisurely.
Were we wrong! The halt did not last half an hour, but EIGHT HOURS! To the credit of the foreigners, not one of them lost his temper.
Till 1 pm, there was some hope that we might somehow make it to our tents in Sarchu. To reach there, one has to cross the 4883-metre high Baralacha Pass and the Army post situated before it allows you to pass only till 2 pm. The restriction is necessary because if at all you happen to have a breakdown on the pass and have to spend the night there, you can freeze to death. But once the deadline was over, we became desperate. To beat boredom - ignoring all warnings -- some of us decided to climb a nearby mountain to visit a local lama claimed to have magical powers. The lama was not there but the view from the top was heavenly.
When the bus did recommence its journey around 7 pm, we had stopped thinking of Sarchu. The destination now was Darcha. Huge herds of sheep that we met had the right of the way and that caused further delay.
The places whose names appear so reassuring on the map are no more than a cluster of three or four temporary dhabas that also have a few cots for the night - Rs 30 per bed. Don't expect any authentic local delicacies when you order meals. Your noodles or soup will come straight from Maggi packs. The price will be about twice that prevalent in the plains.
But the bed and the steaming noodles in a Darcha tent appeared a blessing after a day spent in wait at a bus workshop without food. It is said that the altitude hampers sleep. It proved to be a false alarm in our case.
After a quick sponge the next morning, we were off again. Baralacha proved to be a tough nut to crack. The road was white-knuckle, edge of the seat stuff. Altitude had given severe headache to many of us. One's heart went out to driver Kashmir Singh who was facing the same problem and popping aspirin pills to steady his nerves.
Those who complained that the road was terrible were told that in fact it had improved a lot after the Kargil war. The Pakistani intrusion threatened the Srinagar-Leh road and that woke up the authorities to the need for maintaining this alternate route. Hats off to GREF and Himank men who toil in the cruel weather and surroundings in which it is an effort even to walk.
Three hours of drive on the pass where doing 10 km in one hour is great going and we reached Sarchu, our original scheduled halt. We stopped for tea while the driver did a routine check-up of the vehicle. Horror of horrors, the oil leak which had been repaired the previous day had occurred again and the vehicle was unfit for travel. The only hope now was to get another bus from Manali, full 12 hours away.
An American couple that had been to Leh several times gave us a pep-talk that if one wanted to see real Ladakh, Sarchu with its desolate beauty was the place to be at. The result was that at least half of the brooding passengers stranded there decided to go on a trek to a nearby river.
Was the expedition worthwhile! The terrain changed mysteriously as did the weather. The sun would sear the skin one moment and the clouds would come the next and it would be biting cold again.
The sunset was the most beautiful I have ever seen. Mountains changed colour constantly with a change in the direction of sun's rays. Dinner was taken as early as 7; the small generator petered out after another hour and everyone got cocooned in sleeping bags plus several blankets. Even these were not sufficient protection against the biting cold.
Going out to the loo at night was a nightmare, except that it provided a golden opportunity to see the sky as if you were peering through Hubble telescope, or perhaps the stars had come down a billion miles. Luckily, the bus sent from Manali arrived the next day, but the journey could commence only at 9. The fear was we might not be able to reach Pang by 1, the deadline for proceeding towards Tanglangla.
Before that lay Lachlangla, a little lower at 5060 metres, but with perhaps the most scary and steep climb. We did make it to Pang in time, and finally let our hearts go back from our mouths to its normal resting place.
A little after Pang, one reaches a plateau and drives almost straight for about 45 km. If you notice herdsmen rushing towards you, don't feel alarmed. They are there only to ask you if you have any water to spare. For these men and women tending sheep and yak, the nearest source of water is at least two hours away.
Don't be misled into believing that all of them are hopelessly poor. Some of the hardy men and women have huge herds and equally big hordes of money also. A few also indulge in smuggling from China (the Leh market is full of Chinese stuff). Most of the big sheep owners are accompanied by their own doctors and even masters who teach their children as they move from place to place. And Laloo Yadav thought that "charwaha vidyalayas" were his idea.
By the time we reached Tanglangla, the second highest motorable pass in the world (5328 metres), it was snowing so heavily that it was not possible even to get out for photographs, and we could take in the majestic view only during the return journey.
The landscape changes yet again after crossing this pass. Between Rong and Upshi, you come across finely chiselled hills which remind you of children's slides. The bald hills accompany you for so long that you develop claustrophobia, till you hit Upshi and the mighty Indus at last.
Leh itself is a wonderful destination
but after such an otherworldly journey, its "civilisation",
greenery and rugged beauty appeared as some sort of an anti-climax. We
spent some days visiting its numerous gompas and other landmarks, but
nothing compared with the thrill of the Manali-Leh travel. From the
effusive tone, you must have guessed that yours truly has fallen in
love with the road. This love at first sight deserves to be nurtured.
If ever you decide to undertake the arduous journey and need a
co-passenger, you know whom to contact!