Manali – leh highway: Test of endurance, Experience of a lifetime!
When I was researching about the Manali-Leh road road journey on the internet and the travel books/magazines I could automatically feel my heart beat increasing and I started experiencing AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) like symptoms at sea level itself. I kind of went through the entire journey in mind. Anxiety levels rose even before the journey commenced! Well, for a journey that takes 2 full days, crosses over 5 high passes , over rubbled roads exposing bizarre landscapes; I think my mind was well prepared for what lay ahead 😀 . Still with all this mental preparedness and researched anticipation , I was taken aback with the sheer beauty that engulfed the journey.
Although Leh can also be accessed by road starting from Srinagar, most of the adventurists opt for the Manali-Leh route for the landscapes en route. Manali figures in my list of favourite places in India (Will post my Manali experiences soon too!) so I was more than happy to spend 2-3 days at Manali before commencing the Leh journey. Manali is a hub for Leh road journeys and there are travel agents galore who will customize the journey for you. There are primarily 3 ways to reach Leh- One is through an 18 hours flat through a journey which starts at 2 am(!) and reaches Leh at 7 pm the same day- rightfully called as ‘cannon-ball’ rides. This maniacal journey is in a Sumo/Qualis stuffed with 7-8 people and you pay as per the seat. Totally not advisable. There are also HPTDC buses that take you to Leh over a span of 2 days with a night halt at Keylong. This was our first preference, however, they werent operational when we were there. So we opted for a private car and asked the travel agent to hunt for 2-3 fellow passengers who could share thier journey with us and we could split the cost.Between my husband and I,we paid 7000 for the middle seats in the Qualis.We were lucky to get the company of 3 Korean students who were incidentally learning Hindi and were in India on an exchange program. It was a refresher for me too in ‘Shuddh Hindi’ as the ‘vartalaap’ was strictly in Hindi with them . They had even adopted hindi names to make it easier for Indians to converse with them- So they were Mahaan, Aamir and Sharmaji for us!
Day 1: Manali – Jispa (145 kms)
Taking a private cab helped in us designing a customised itinerary. We started in the morning at 7 from Manali for our 475 km journey to Leh, planning to cross Rohtang pass (3978 meters) by noon, reaching Jispa by 3-4 and breaking the journey with an overnite at Jispa. But that was just our “plan”! Due to rains, there was a huge landslide on Rohtang pass making the road extremely slushy. A truck had gotten stuck in the slush,causing a traffic jam. We reached the jammed spot at 9:30 am. And we could manage to move ahead by about 100 meters by 2 pm. No exaggeration!The cars wouldnt and couldnt move. The day trippers at Rohtang started returning back to Manali on horses.
There were just a few cars which actually wanted to cross the pass and move
towards Keylong,including ours. Our dare devil driver finally ran out on patience and decided to take some short cuts and zoomed past the slushy area. With a sharp fall on the other side, I am sure my atheist hubby too chanted a small prayer. Once this patch was crossed, it was a bumpy but hasslefree descent to Lahaul valley. Rohtang pass is the only gateway to this valley and with the pass closed from November- May, this valley is isolated during these six months. With the gushing Chandra river trailing you, the journey to Jispa is spectacular to say the least with images of terrace farming. The small bridges that connect the two ends of the valley are especially charming.. Tandi is where you also need to fill up on petrol/diesel as there wouldnt be any filling station till Leh (Although I doubted this claim, it was true!).
Its better to break the journey at Jispa as you cover additional kilometers. Jispa is also prettier than Keylong and most accomodation is on the riverside. The most preferred hotel in Jispa is Hotel Ibex, which is probably the most luxurious hotel on the entire Manali-Leh route and hence getting a booking here can be difficult. There is also tented accomodation available at Jispa on the riverside, which is interesting. But with the chilly winds piercing us at 6pm, we wondered how it would be during midnight inside the tents. We stayed at Padma guest house that had cozy and comfortable rooms with a good buffet spread for dinner. It cost us Rs. 1200. The halt at Rohtang had exhausted us and it was a good night’s sleep indeed…
Day 2: Jispa-Leh (330 kms!)
If the Rohtang pass experience was anything to go by, the second day had its own set of challenges. There are a total of 5 high passes that you need to cross to get to Leh . And on our first day, we had crossed only one; and the smallest of the passes. Groggy eyed, we started our Day 2 journey at 7 am sharp from Jispa. Our halt for breakfast was at Zingzing bar- I love the ‘zing’ it has in the name, although the place is nothing more than some handful parachute tents that provide basic khana. These parachute tents also offer beds over nite stays- and these are just beds-nothing more,nothing less.
As the road unwinds towardsBaralacha La, you can feel the difference in the landscape. Gone are the lush valleys and enter the brownish hue on mountains. Its difficult to spot a tree en route here, although a rivulet loyally follows u. Its amazing how sharply nature takes you through the stark changes in landscape. As we cross our second pass – Baralacha-La at 4930 meters , the only others on the road with us are enthusiastic bikers,cyclists and some cars travelling to Leh. There is not a single villlage you come across en route. There are some herdsmen around with thier cattle, giving you signs of some civilizations around, but none that you can see.A little beyond Baralacha-La is the pretty Suraj Tal lake.This place makes a photographer out of everyone. A must break for photographs and soaking in the landscape!
Our next place for a halt was Sarchu which is the Himachal Pradesh-Kashmir state border. Sarchu is at a height of 4290 meters and the cab operators at Manali will try to convince you to break your Day 1 night journey here instead of Keylong/Jispa as you can cover more road on Day 1. Hence, Sarchu has many tented accomodations with a wide range of options from Rs.100/night to Rs.2000/night. Most travellers opting to stay back here on Day 1 have had serious AMS issues and its better to stick to Jispa/Keylong, even if your Day 2 journey
is slightly longer. However,the scenes en route to Sarchu from Baralacha La are bizarre and outstanding. Do keep your camera handy when you approach it!
From Sarchu as we approach the next pit stop point of Pang, we have to cross the 3rd high pass en route-Nakee La. At 4965 meters the drive to Nakee la is a drive that drives you crazy-quite literally. The roads that lead to Nakeela are called Gata Loops-21 loops which are steep, blind and very very sharp. Its even crazier when you have a driver who knows the short cuts to avoid the loops! After this kind of a drive up, you hardly realise when you reach Nakeela. Somehow, this pass is often ignored by most travelogues, though it has a very interesting drive upto it! The road from Nakeela to the 4th pass i.e. Lachung La (5079 meters) is fairly plain. The sights now seem familiar and somewhat monotonous.
There are distinctly 2 colours visible now in the landscapes-Blue and all shades of brown. Once descended from Lachung La, there are army posts where one needs to register and grab a cuppa tea. Pang also has an overnite tent stay facility, but it seemed very basic.
The drive from Pang to the final and fifth high pass of the journey (phew!) to Tanglang La is via the Morey Plains. Morey plains are at an average height of 4000 meters, but sudden flat land confuses you,making you feel you are at a much lower altitude! Surrounded by mountains, these plains do not have a designated road. One can drive through anywhere in the plain-albeit in the right direction. The bikers/car drivers indulge in some thrill seeking here, through informal dirt races as you keep driving towards Leh! But the drive is safe and the scenery- a welcome change. After this refreshing drive of about an hour, its time for the ascent again towards Tanglang La!
Tanglang La is supposed to be the world’s second highest pass at 5359 meters. Tanglangla was perhaps the first place and the only place in the entire journey where I could feel uneasiness creeping in. The 15 steps I took for a picture led to some dizziness. The low oxygen levels did make me quite nervous! I quickly urged all the people back in the car and started the descent downwards. It was amazing how within 10 minutes of the descent,I was back to my normal chatty self! Truly- the best remedy for AMS is just plain descent!
Once the crossing of Tanglang La was over, Leh suddenly seems closer, although it was still 2-3 hours away at least. Excitement levels begin to mount again in the car! Somehow the fatigue disappeared. There was a silent sense of achievement in all the car-mates. I was glad that none of us experienced any serious health issues. The road to Leh now takes us through the town of Upshi and we can see villages en route. Strangely, because of being brought in the crowded city of Mumbai, crowds make me feel comforted and familiar. The mighty Indus river is now our travel companion. We reached Leh city at 7 pm, exactly 12 hours after we began our day from Jispa. Jispa then felt like a distant dream!
Manali-Leh journey has extreme reactions from people who have undergone the experience. Some hate it! But most love it!
Would I take the road again- Definately! But at that time, I’ll figure in a couple of more days at Lahaul. I am still mesmerized by the images of the valley. The road trip tested me mentally and physically. I was overwhelmed in a spiritual kind of way. I was thankful that my back survived the rubbled roads and bumps for the 2 days. I was thankful my mind allowed me to soak in the landscapes fully, in the varying oxygen levels. When I look back at it, it serves as my personal benchmark of endurance-physical or mental till date.
This “high”way is a must do for a true nature lover, a photographer, a bike/SUV enthusiast,an adventurist or a person who has a little bit of all these. All you need is a strong back, lots of water and as this wise cab guy says….some faith and hope!!
Happy road trippin’!