Leh-Manali Highway. The twisty 490 km long highway that’s alive with challenging and treacherous snow-carpeted passes, deep valleys, high altitude plains and unending streams; offers a pretty sight of vibrant prayer flags strung across on ropes; exhibits severe weather conditions (icy-cold wind literally cuts through you); where atmospheric oxygen drops as one progresses further making it difficult to breathe and picturesque landscapes too take your breath away as vistas change with every hairpin bend.
If I have to describe my experience of driving through Leh-Manali Highway – I would say that the journey through one of the riskiest highways is like traversing through heaven and hell in one fell swoop but then that’s what makes this road trip decisively perfect trip to take.
This is one road journey that should not be missed! It’s overwhelming to witness the imposing raw nature at play! Believe me, memories of this road experience will be etched on your heart and soul forever.
No Looking Back!
The moment our car trailed away from Manali and drifted into curved roads cut through towering mountains showing off deep gorges is when I knew that this is going to be one hell of an experience, literally and metaphorically!
The mighty Rohtang Pass gleamed under a fresh fall of the hailstone. The journey becomes arduous yet beautiful as one move across Rohtang Pass.
Just when one crosses Rohtang Pass, civilization suddenly evaporates. It seems like you are completely disconnected from the world. But, as a matter of fact, you connect…connect with untouched and beautiful nature. Mighty Himalayas (in different shades of brown), bluish blue sky, gushing rivers, hushed lakes, relentless winds and funny but valid BRO (Border Roads Organisation) road signs become your constant companions all through the journey.
Tandi was our destination for night halt. It was our first experience of staying in tents amidst meadows and snow-peaked mountains. We enjoyed it, even more, to see kids enjoying every bit of it.
The Confluence of Chandra and Bhaga Rivers at Tandi is a must-stop. Legend has it that Chandra (daughter of the moon) and Bhaga (son of the sun) who were in love with each other finally met here. The Chandrabhaga River becomes Chenab as it crosses from Jammu to Punjab.
Cerulean Bhaga River flowing on one side of the road towards Keylong makes the experience a visual treat. The road further leads to Jispa and Darcha, which is known to be the last settlement with numbered residents and few shops. Trekkers start their journey to Zanskar from Darcha. Mountains grow taller and arid as one progress towards one of the highest passes on this road, Baralacha La Pass. BRO workers were busy shoving the fresh snow off the roads.
It’s heartening to know that these people make the mountain roads their home for 5-6 months a year and toil hard to make our lives easier. Can’t thank them enough. We did our bit by offering water and snacks to them. You know, just waving at them makes their day in a place otherwise completely uncoupled from civilization.
Army presence is overwhelming and bestows life on nearly lifeless roads. Snow-clad peaks, barren mountains, deserted roads, highest passes and almost frozen lakes typify the Manali-Leh highway. Deepak Tal and Suraj Tal are worth a pause!
Spending a Ghastly Night at Sarchu, Major Halt Point on the Leh-Manali Highway
Our stay at Sarchu camps was rough and troublesome. The backdrop of the camp was pretty but the conditions were equally crude and strident. Cruel chilly winds and oxygen shortage don’t allow you to acknowledge the beauty. Tents were unable to save us from the horribly low temperatures of the region. They didn’t even provide the guests with proper bedding and blankets. Drop in oxygen level added to the woes. It was a nightmare.
It seemed like the longest night of my life. I thought to myself that maybe God sometimes tests human spirit. I would recommend people to stay in a guesthouse or a homestay at Keylong or Jispa to avoid the inconvenience. Please don’t confuse adventure with the inconvenience.
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. ~ G.K.Chesterton
Just thinking about that night brings shivers down my spine.
End of the Harshest of Nights – Leaving Sarchu
Leaving Sarchu during ungodly hours (3:30 a.m) was unavoidable. Getting into our car felt like bliss after that hellish stay at the camps. The night sky full of stars twinkled in all its splendor as if trying to put a smile on our tired faces. As the darkness died out and daylight kicked off, the sun adorned the snow-peaks with its tangerine and the golden brown mountains with curvy roads and sharp turns became apparent.
Driving in dark on these roads was tedious because of bad road conditions. BRO has been doing a wonderful job in keeping the roads open and drivable for tourists to enjoy the virgin nature, however constantly liquefying snow from the mountains damage the roads making the driving conditions bad.
Tsarap River looks mesmerizing in the early morning light. The aligned road unanticipatedly turns into a twisted road and killer hairpin switchbacks climb swiftly to Nakee La Pass at the height of 15,647 ft. This incline to Nakee La is known as 21 Gata Loops because of series of 21 hairpin bends.
The Ghost of Gata Loops
The story of Ghost of Gata Loops makes this particular stretch scary as well as interesting.
The legend has it that a truck carrying a driver and cleaner was broken down on one of the 21 hairpin bends. The driver walked to the nearest village to get help and left behind the cleaner to take care of the loaded truck. The driver got stuck for several days in one of the village and as soon as the weather cleared, driver along with the helpers rushed back to the place where the truck was deserted only to discover that the cleaner had died because of thirst. hunger and excessive cold. The cleaner was buried in the same spot. Travelers claim to have spotted a beggar asking for water. Some of them, who claim to have offered him water saw those bottles falling right through his hands. Goosebumps
To pacify the thirsty ghost, natives built a monument on the cleaner’s grave and many passersby who know the story leave sealed water bottles here. We could spot the pile of bottles near a memorial made of bricks with a real human skull placed inside that.
When Going Gets Tough…
Lachung La Pass at 16,600 ft follows the Nakee La Pass. The steep drop in oxygen levels while advancing on Leh-Manali Highway make you feel wobbly and out of sorts. It progressively becomes difficult to enjoy the journey and the views it’s offering.
Wacky descent from Lachung La to Pang scares and excites you; both at the same time. Pang boasts the “World’s Highest Transit Camp.”
After climbing and clambering through some of the highest passes, the road from Pang leads to plains which are like a fairyland in the middle of nowhere. The topography seems quite implausible. I mean, an unceasing stretch of plains at such high altitude enveloped by mountain ranges! What a respite after a brutal drive!
Morey Plains; the stunningly scenic and impossibly smooth stretch of 42 km at an altitude of 15,400 ft. belted by mountains on either side is known to be the biggest and highest tableland on Earth. It unconsciously became my favorite part of Leh-Manali Journey.
We spent some time soaking in the awesome views of seemingly dry and barren landscape with towering snow-capped peaks poising the skyline before ascending toward the Taglang La pass. I didn’t want the mighty plains to end – It was like “Yeh dil mange Morey”
Alas! All good things come to an end. The straight road begins to ascend to Taglang La, another mountain pass which is claimed to be the world’s second highest pass at 17,582 ft. It’s the highest point on the Leh-Manali Highway.
The Tough Gets Going…
The descent from Taglang La pass, though long is certainly a breather as the elevation drops drastically all the way to Leh. Landscapes seem companionable as one descends to Rumtse (Indus Valley), the first human settlement after Lahaul-Spiti. Rumtse serves as a starting point for the trek to Tso Moriri and Kibber.
While landscapes here are inviting but we decided not to take unneeded breaks so that we could reach Leh on time and get required rest to get rid of a headache and nausea caused by high altitude drive.
We agilely crossed Upshi and Karu admiring the Indus River unceasingly flowing along the road. Phone signals started working somewhere near Karu. Incitement of having arrived at the place that has been my dream destination for years was evident and the weariness of two days’ tedious drive went off after a much-needed hot shower, light meal (khichdi) and affluent sleep.
I secretly thought to myself that there should be an award for surviving and thriving Leh-Manali Highway 🙂
The turnpike is highly vulnerable to avalanches or landslides and thus, is as risky as it is spectacular. It sure guarantees to give you an Adrenalin rush but never assures a secure and smooth passage.
Well, if it’s Leh-Manali Highway, you have got to expect the unexpected! This is why it makes for one helluva road trip! A badass roller coaster ride for sure!