There are roads, and then there are roads. There are roads which inspire, awe and terrorize at the same time. To put the Manali Leh highway in that category would be an understatement. Route
Manali - Rohtang Jot - Gramphoo(Take left) - Tandi(Take right towards keylong) - Keylong - Jispa - Darcha - Baralacha La - Sarchu - Pang - Morey Plains - Tanglang La - Upshi - Karu - Leh
No trip to Ladakh is complete without doing this route. This magnificent highway is over 500kms long, and crosses 5 highs passes, higher than many highest peaks of the Alps.
The internet is full of accounts about the toughness and the sheer joy and terror of riding this highway. But do not be scared. Post 2006, there has been a lot of construction activity, which has made this road very tame. In the non snow months of August-September, even small cars can do this highway with moderate difficulty.
Thirty years ago, when the first vehicles started doing this highway, it was a nightmare. A close contact of ours did it in the M800 then. They were four strong guys, who took 2 long bamboo poles with them. Every time there was a water crossing, they would put the poles under the car, and lift the 600kg machine across.
Thankfully, those days are over. Much of this highway is tarred. Infact the toughest section of this highway, the Rohtang Pass, is very close to the starting point.
From last couple of years, you need a permit to cross the Rohtang pass if your vehicle sports a non Himachal Pradesh number plate. From the looks of it, it has done little to DE-congest the Rohtang Pass, but has made the taxi union very happy.
Somebody from Mumbai has even filed a case against this practice, as this practice can be deemed unconstitutional, but we never know when and what will be the outcome.
The permit process starts soon after the BRO declares the Rohtang Pass officially open.
Our journey to Leh, as the name of the highway suggests, starts from the bustling hill town of Manali. Many find the riverside town very quaint and lovely, but I frankly find it a garbage dump, with unplanned construction and garbage dumps everywhere.
As you roll into the town, I suggest you tank up at the HP pump on the left, right at the start of the main street. Though there is a fuel bunk by IOC at Tandi, I suggest, do not take any chances, and fill up the vehicle here. Make sure you have at-least 600kms worth of fuel. To calculate mileage, subtract 10% from what your car gives in heavy city stop go traffic.
If you are going in the months of June-August, make sure you keep 700kms range, as there is a fair chance of getting stuck in Rohtang jams for hours, with engines idling.
As you leave the town of Manali and cross over Beas, you start traveling on the right bank of Beas. This area is cleaner, with less construction, and glorious views of the mountains.
The Road is tarred, and fairly wide, till you hit the Solang diversion. Most tourists will head towards Solang valley, and you will be in a long queue of taxis, headed up-to Rohtang Pass and beyond.
This is a tricky section with steep climbs and unruly local traffic who have never heard of "give way to uphill traffic rule".
Within five kms, you will be at the lovely village of Kothi. This the last place where you will get proper food for a long time. There is a hotel serving good food "Sagoo Cafe" here, and opposite Sagoo cafe there is an excellent dhaba run by a lahauli lady.
And from here, the real climb to Rohtang Pass starts.
I have went up this road numerous times. Both before and after the permit regime started. However, surprisingly, I have never needed permit, as I went during extreme off season, when there was nobody manning the post where permits are checked.
Rohtang Pass, is a dirty pass, with garbage, traffic jams and tourists. However, snowfall can change its character. A white Rohtang is the stuff of legends. However, do remember, any sort of precipitation makes Rohtang all but unclimbable for non 4WD vehicles.
In the past year, BRO has worked real hard to improve the pass.
Once you have the permit, make sure you are at Kothi at 6am. I have heard that now Rohtang will be one way. you go up from 6am-12pm, and then 12-6 you come down. At night its maintenance time. There is also talk about no passages on tuesdays.
A picture of the views from Kothi
From Kothi, an excellent road goes up, with forests and meadows for view. When there is snow, you will find lots of tourists at Marhi. The road used to be tarred till Gulaba in 2009, but last few years have seen the road go beyond Marhi
In the early summer months, such sights are common
Within 2 hours of starting from Manali, you will reach the Top, if there are no traffic jams. At the top again there is an excellent tarred road
The descent from Rohtang is easy, and at Gramphoo again the good roads towards Keylong start.
you will pass the truck town of Khoksar, and now you are in Lahaul District.
Most Manali Leh riders take a break at Keylong or Jispa. These are the last places, where you get proper hotel accommodation with hot water and excellent eating facilities.
That said, if you do not have enough fuel, do tank up at Tandi, the last petrol pump for 365kms!
Road to Keylong is in excellent condition, except for a few tiny water crossings
If you are a first timer on your four wheeler, I urge you stop at Jispa, instead of the "midway" point of Sarchu.
There are three reasons for that
1. Jispa offers more comfortable accommodation with heated rooms, hot water, allowing you to recharge
2. At 3200 odd meters, altitude is lower, so you get time to acclimatize
3. An early start from Jispa, esp in the early months when snow rules the passes, you miss out the traffic jams which start from 8am onwards.
In about 1:30 hours from Jispa, you reach the first pass of your second days journey, or second pass of the trip - the Baralacha La.This pass is also the highest, and usually has the highest amount of snow. You will find snow as late as July on this pass.
On the way to the La, you will also come across two small lakes, Deepak Tal and the Suraj Tal. You are still in Himachal Pradesh, so lakes are "Tal" and not "Tso"
Post Baralacha La, as you descend, you will reach a place called Killing Sarai. The name is apt, for this place kills vehicles. There is a bridge on the river here, which breaks when the mountain wants it to break. When the bridge breaks, you have to wade through deep water. In the dry month of October, even early in the morning we found the water to be a couple of feet deep.
Couple of hours after Baralacha La you are at Sarchu. This is near the HP-JK border, and a favorite with the more adventurous. There are tented accommodations here, ranging from 2000/night luxury tents with attached toilets to 200/night basic tents.
If you must stay here, I suggest staying a night in Keylong anyways, and doing the highway over three days. A night in Manali (2000mts) followed by Sarchu (~4000mts) is recipe for disaster, and AMS can be deadly here.
Post Sarchu, you enter Ladakh. The landscape is now truly barren, and if you are driving in September or later, expect clear skies and no traffic. For a first timer, its an awe inspiring feeling. This would be the loneliest road you ever drove on.
You soon hit the famous Gata Loops. There are lots of shortcuts here, but my suggestion, avoid them, esp uphill if you are not familiar with off roading.
About 2 hours after Sarchu, Beyond the Gata Loops is the Nakeela, and then the Lachungla, 30 minutes ahead.
These two passes come in quick succession, and are quite barren. You are in true rain shadow region here.
After crossing these you reach Pang, a traditional lunch stop. Some very adventurous people stay the night here, but at 4500mts, its not a comfortable place
Jispa to Pang usually takes a max of 7 hours, with relaxed "photographic driving".
Dhabas at Pang
Take your fill of food and drinks here, for now we will cross the More Plains, and head all the way to Leh.
More plains used to be stuff of legends, with dirt tracks capable of sustaining 120kmph speeds, and sudden sand banks sinking even 4WD vehicles. However, now BRO has made an excellent road through the more plains. It may be an invitation to speed, but there are culverts all over for water passage, and they often come without warning. So please be careful
Yes, you wonder, whether its a highway or a runway
The arrow straight road will take you to Debring, the place where a side road goes towards Tso Kar. You need permits for Tso Kar region, so unless you have them in hand, keep going straight, towards Tanglang La
Tanglang La proudly procaims to be the third highest pass, after Khardung and Chang, however, the real story is different.
That said, its a dirty pass with lots of dust. Stop if you must, take a picture and move on
The road after Tanglang La is excellent barring a few bad stretches, and within 3 hours you can be at the outskirts of Leh.
However, it was not always so, and when the road was open, lot of vehicles, even buses used to take the extremely steep downhill shortcut.
Even today, you can see some, as it saves a few km of the road.
However the road is like this, so make your choice wisely!
As you reach Leh, you will first hit Chogmalsar. The locality of Chogmalsar was the one destroyed in cloud burst, however, much has been rebuilt. There is a very reliable petrol pump here. I always get a tank full here instead of the town. I suggest you also do the same. Fuel here is always clean. Suggested Itenaries: 2 days
1. Manali - Jispa
2. Jispa - Leh
1. Manali - Sarchu
2. Sarchu - Leh 3 days
1. Manali - Sissu
2. Sissu - Sarchu
3. Sarchu - Leh
1. Manali - Sissu
2. Sissu - Pang
3. Pang - Leh Hotel accommodation
Hotels with attached toilets and hot water available till Jispa. Keylong and Jispa have good Accomodation suiting all budgets.
Luxury tents available at Sarchu
Basic tents available at Pang Fuel available at Tandi, and then 365kms later at Karu