I wouldn’t exactly call Manali-Leh Highway a ‘highway’. Of the 490 km stretch, more than half the road is inbuilt or severely damaged due to melting glaciers and landslides. One of the most climatically extreme and dangerous roads in the world, according to BBC Travel, this highway only opens for 4 months every year. It winds through the second highest road pass in the world (Tanglang La at 17582 feet), and showcases landscapes beautiful enough to take your breath away (also owing to the altitude) as you reach the heart of the Buddhist land of Ladakh. The thrill of navigating through some of the world’s highest passes on the Manali-Leh highway is difficult to put into words.
Route: Manali – Rohtang Jot – Kokhsar – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa – Darcha – Baralacha La – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Gata Loops – Nakee La – Lachulung La – Pang – More Plains – Tanglang La – Upshi – Karu – Leh
Distance: 490 kms
Route opens: May to September
It goes without saying, but road trip rule number one is ‘be fully prepared’, especially when travelling across hundreds of miles of remote, arid desert in the sky. A few of these may seem obvious, but we learnt from some fairly stupid mistakes.
1. Plan, plan, plan – There is nothing that beats the excitement of planning a road trip. Consider, for example, when you want to reach your destination, and how long it’s going to take. If you’re driving a car to Leh from Manali, two days will be better, however bikers prefer to go in three days to properly acclimatize to high altitude.
Cars – Sarchu is an ideal place to take a break from driving: at an even distance between Manali and Leh, its baron, Pandemonium-esque sand-scape is a perfect introductory testament to Ladakh’s beauty.
Bikes – Stopping over at Keylong on Day 1 and Sarchu on Day 2 is recommended.
2. Getting a decent vehicle – The highway to heaven is like going through hell. The road is churned up and uneven due to landslides, snowfall, and glacial melts. In places the road tapers out into the mountain wall, and there are some very narrow, hairy bits. Make sure your vehicle can pass through such extreme environments. SUV/MUVs are preferred over sedans and compact cars. Bikes should have powerful engines. Your vehicle should be serviced and ready for driving in such high altitude. It can come in handy to learn some maintenance checks and balances surrounding your vehicle prior to embarking on your journey (i.e. changing a tyre). Infrastructural support is at a bare minimum here and there are no repair or service stations after Keylong (360 Kms from Leh).
Basic tool kit and puncture kit, air pump, spare tyre, torchlight, jump start cables, tow away rope, spare coolant and engine oil are must-have items in your vehicle. Our tubeless tyre got punctured and an air pump saved us in no-man’s land.
3. Refuel wherever you can – Tandi (380 kms from Leh) has the last fuel pump before Leh, so make sure you fuel up your tank here and carry enough fuel for the rest of the journey. However, don’t depend on this petrol pump: last time we checked here, they were out of fuel. Stock up well from Manali instead before heading off into the abyss.
4. Have enough cash – Do carry enough cash with you, and try to withdraw from Manali. There is an ATM in Keylong but it has usually run out of cash or has no working electricity. International cards only work with specific banks so definitely withdraw money from Manali.
5. Medical Supplies – Nobody wants to get sick whilst travelling, and some sicknesses are preventable with the right measures. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is common at high altitudes at elevations over 10,000 feet because oxygen in the air reduces by roughly 40%. AMS symptoms can include headaches, dizziness and shortness of breath. If you happen to be going through the motions with one or some of these, make sure you stop at Keylong rather than Sarchu. Taking some AMS deterrent medicines like Diamox, which you can buy from Manali before you head on your steep upward climb, can prevent AMS. We’d suggest carrying a First-Aid kit, too, since one of our friends smacked his head on a low-hanging branch whilst hiking and we had no gauze, plasters or anti-bacterial cream.
5. Accommodation – You don’t need to worry about accommodation. It is available in the form of guest houses, tents and dhabas (roadside restaurants for $1 per person per night) in most places on the route.
6. Packing – No one really likes packing, do they? Follow the rudiments of packing for the mountains and you will be fine. The temperature changes pretty quickly on your ascent to Ladakh and beyond, and you will move through a confusing array of micro-climates – from scorching sun for shorts, to nippy snow-strewn mountain passes for coats and hats. Take one or two winter uppers and thermals. If you don’t like the idea of using previously used blankets in the accommodation, get your own blanket (mine smelled like rat shit).
Try to be as light as you can but don’t eliminate the essentials. Be careful with your electronics. Don’t forget chargers, spare batteries and memory cards, lenses, flashlights, tripod, cables, carrier bags for rubbish, etc. The highway is heaven for photographers and you don’t want to miss opportunities to capture the beauty: one of our editors didn’t charge her camera fully and had to rely on on her memory to store up the whole ascent into Ladakh valley – snow capped mountains, glaciers, dry canyons.
Cross checking your luggage against some kind of list available on the Internet is helpful. (Things to carry when you go on trip)
7. Pick the right route – There are many short cuts on the road, which are tempting, but ultimately dangerous and should be avoided. Drive carefully on the slush and water-logged roads.
8. Music library for the mountains – Road trips are complemented fully by the right soundtrack. Provide fuel for your nostalgia through songs for all the emotions you are likely to encounter.
All that’s left for you to do is enjoy these dry canyons, raging rivers, steep curves, snow-capped peaks, burning rays of sun, freezing winds – an ever-changing symphony of landscapes jumping straight out of a fantasy story.
If there is ever a bleak moment, just remember this quote from one of my favorite movies, American Beauty:“…but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”