MANALI TO LEH ROAD TRIP
manali to leh highway – an epic two day journey through the himalayas
The high altitude road trip from Manali to Leh was a two day journey along dangerous mountain roads cutting through harsh and inclement Himalayan terrain. a distance of 473kms along rain washed, avalanche eroded and precariously narrow roads. across gravity defying mountain passes all while braving nature in its most sublime yet treacherous domain. a quest that proved to be two of the most awe-inspiring days we could have imagined.
In the early hours of arriving in Manali, a town nestled among the mountains of the Indian state Himachal Pradesh, mist and fog clouded above silently passing to what would soon clear, unveiling the snow capped mountains in the distance. The Himalayas were drawing closer.
Known to be one of the most beautiful road trips in the world, the highway between Manali and Leh is also known to consist of roads that can prove quite treacherous, so we opted to be driven by a local in a well equipped 4X4, a decision that determined to be an incredibly wise and sensible one. Within an hour of wandering into a local tour agency, we negotiated the cost of 15000 rupees for the 3 of us. We would leave the following morning.
All but 30 minutes into departing Manali, we began to gauge how prodigious this road trip was set out to be. Lush green valleys sitting quietly among the tree covered mountains already captivated us. Misty clouds embracing the mountains, hiding the enormity of their stature. Rolling hills of lavish green, waterfalls cascading down the mountain side forming rivers of glacial water running deep through the valleys, yielding a sense of what it would feel to be viewing the lands of Scotland. It was already a proven reason as to why so many underestimate the country of India, unaware of the vast landscapes it has to offer. It was only the beginning, yet the feeling of anticipation and excitement at this point was irrefutable.
Fifty kilometers stand between Manali and the beginning of the Rhotang pass. This was the passing of the first glacier, and for myself, the first time I was to see snow. Excitement levels were high, like a child who had spotted Santa on Christmas morning. So, I did what any child would do...I made my very first snowball. This of course coincided with the celebrity-like excitement from other Indian tourists, forever wanting photos with the western girls. Amusingly coaxing our male friend into taking a selfie and slowly pushing him out as the camera was turned on us. Attention is something you learn to accept very quickly in India, although appreciative for the excitement and elation felt over our presence, the frequency never fails to become tiresome.
Whilst the roads were still paved, we ascended higher into the mountains where the air became cooler and the sheer drop off the side of the road became unnerving. Snow capped peaks began to emerge through the clouds atop the mountains, far more immense in size than we had witnessed before. As the journey continued the roads became narrower, steeper and more treacherous. The faith instilled in our driver was inconceivable, yet when time slowed for the many circumstances that would see any inexperienced person feel at dismay and panic, he showed nothing but a sense of ease and control that was extremely reassuring. 4x4's from the opposite direction had to share one narrow lane along a sheer drop to our right. With a foot deep of gushing water from the icy rivers needed to be crossed, or stops in traffic we would incur due to road works obstructing our path. This pass will never cease to contribute challenges and obstructions to the drive that when overcome, provides a feeling of great fulfillment.
Keylong, Jispa and Sarchu are the popular choices of overnight stays. It was late when we arrived at Sarchu, not a single thing could be seen beyond our camp. The ever changing landscape of the Himalayas ensured that we had no sense of our surroundings as the sun set an hour before arrival. Tents placed side by side, large in size and offering very little luxuries. Sarchu is situated at an altitude of 4290m (14070ft) the air is thin, cold and proves an endeavor for many that choose to reside here. However, we slept and dawn came, as did our first realisation to the altitude as we packed slowly and short of breath. The air at this altitude is still necessary to acclimatize to despite doing the majority of it as we slept.
We stepped out in to the light of day, awaiting our tent doors was a view we didn't anticipate. The Himalayas of Kashmir, a once in a lifetime view to wake up to. Vast desolate ground where the tents were laid, encompassed by mountains on either side, so large in stature any inanimate object seemed like a speck of dust in comparison. The magnitude of these mountains are of nothing you could imagine and no photo could ever do them the same justice as witnessing with your own eyes, the grand scale of such an incredible part of the world created by nature and the universe. We had not much time before we were due to set off on route again so in the time we had, we stared in silence and soaked it in
Bright primary coloured flags of prayer, strung high, thrashing about as the icy cold wind passes through them, carrying all the blessings depicted in their scripture. Prayer flags are traditionally used as a means to promote and spread goodwill and compassion into all pervading space. Becoming a permanent part of the universe as they fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life is replaced by new life, hopes are renewed for the world by continually mounting new flags along side the old. A common sighting along this route due to the strong Tibetan influence prevailed over this region.
From the mountains of opulent green turning to different shades of brown, capped in white from the snow that lay upon the peaks. The mountains and terrain changed slowly the further we ventured, making it difficult to put our cameras down. Winding roads that ascended, descended, hairpin after hairpin, over rivers and through valleys into reds and yellows until we were driving through mountains made of deep purple before arriving in Leh, Ladakh.
Manali to Leh, a journey over two days through the Himalayas. A once in a lifetime experience to witness the rugged terrain that houses the utmost panoramic views and incandescent beauty this world has to offer. A highlight of all travels combined.
WORDS: TRACEY HARRIS
PHOTOGRAPHY: KRISTEL CHAPLIN
HOW TO PLAN FOR A MANALI TO LEH ROAD TRIP
HOW TO BOOK A MANALI TO LEH ROAD TRIP
Organizing a trip from Manali to Leh is not difficult. There is an abundance of travel agencies along the main road in Manali. We made our way to Manali from Mcleod Ganj via overnight bus and booked our trip through one of the travel agents in Manali the day before we left.
Tour Agent : North Face Adventure Tours - Mall Road Manali
Price from Manali to Leh: ₹ 15,000 Rupee for three people Approx $75 USD per person for the 4x4 and driver.
Accomodation in Sarchu: ₹ 1500 for a tent for three people $22 USD.
ACCOMMODATION ALONG the MANALI TO LEH HIGHWAY
If tent accommodation is not your thing. I would recommend spending the night in Keylong or Jispa which both have affordable hotels. They are two small towns one after the other nestled among tall mountains and run alongside the Bhag River.
tips for the trip
Get a local driver with a 4x4 from one of the travel agencies in the heart of Manali town.
Travel from Manali to Leh instead of the reverse, this helps you acclimatize slowly over the two days.
Keylong and Jispa offer hotels, Sarchu is campsite only and closer to Leh. This makes day 2 shorter in the car.
Acclimatization tablets are handy to have as everyone handles it differently. We had no troubles however.
Warm clothes and layers especially if staying overnight in Sarchu.