Monday, 16 July 2012

Ladakh Diaries 1 - Manali to Leh, Day One

This is the time to Travel to Ladakh. We did it exactly two years back and it was a journey of our lifetime. Hop on with us as we take you around the "Cold Desert" in all its pristine glory.........

“It’s breathtakingly beautiful” – we told our friends as soon as we reached Leh after the spectacular journey of 473 Kms on the Manali - Leh road. Being fed up of the rush hour traffic to office and back, having lived all along in an urban set up, this “Big Trip” gave us all the thrill and excitement which we could not dream existed. The road clings and wriggles through some of the most spectacular terrain in the world- crossing four high passes, fords, streams and tumbling mountain surfaces!

Our journey started from Manali on a cold rainy morning. We were ordered (!) by our Driver Sumit Singh  on the previous day to be ready at 6 AM to leave Manali. The wisdom of driving in Himalayas is "Leave early and Reach early" as you can not depend on the fickle mountain weather.

Johnson Hotel Manali
In front of Johnson Hotel, Manali
Being our first trip in the Himalayas, ascent upwards unfolded a lot of surprises - the omnipresent apple trees with “red juicy” apples, the streams which gently flow down the tall mountains creating numerous waterfalls, the green carpet of trees and plants in the valley, the clouds which gently seem to caress the mountain peaks was a “visual” poetry which can be best seen than written. The road from Manali to Rohtang is an ascent and is surrounded by beautiful valleys. Let the pictures tell the tale.
Beas River, Manali



The Landscape is spectacular with steep cliffs, lovely conifers, streams tumbling down as waterfalls......

The road till Rohtang has heavy traffic and is prone to mud slide as the surface is soft

Our car slowly climbed towards the snow-capped Rohtang Pass only to wait behind a “Kilometer long” pile up of cars due to a “mudslide”. We had a long journey ahead as the plan was to stay overnight at Sarchu at - 13000 feet - which is approximately 150 KMs from Rohtang.

Chai being by a vendor on the roadside as we waited for the road to ........refreshing in cold environs indeed
Employees from Border Road Organization were summoned from Manali to help clear the “mud slide” and when our car cleared this hurdle, we had lost about 2 hours of precious time.

Having had breakfast at Marhi, our journey resumed towards Sarchu. We did not stop at Rohtang - the place where the day trippers from Manali - majority of them newly weds - gather to play in snow. Some glimpses of Rohtang landscape.

First sight of snow!!
Some Wild flowers too...
The journey beyond Rohtang was suddenly silent. The only noise we could hear was the air rushing against the mountain or the tip – tap of the melting snow or the screech of the car tyre on the road or sometimes when a "Bullet rider" overtook us with that "Thumping" sound. The road was sometimes “cemented”, sometimes a “patch of mud” or sometimes “a path through a running stream” . Very soon the green valleys and mountains were replaced by shred of brown and rust and the snow peaks lingered in the background. Driving along the Bhaga River and listening to its different notes transformed us into a different world. We could see many water falls with water trickling away under the sheets of snow above, valleys capped with snow, rocky mountains painted green by wild grass and flowers.....

The landscape turned more beautiful as we drove in the Bhaga valley surrounded by mighty mountains with lush green covers, waterfalls......

Bhaga river giving us company

Fill up your tanks folks, lest you will be stranded!!

The ascent to Barlacha La starts after crossing the bridge

River or road??

Army and Border Road Organisation on the way

We cross Thandi and Jispa  - last villages - and begin our ascent again towards Baralacha la which is at about 16500 ft. The journey was an absolute delight. Beautiful and pristine Suraj tal lake and the winding snow capped roads , the low hung clouds with sun breaking in between and creating a beautiful rainbow, we could not just take our eyes off the road. We wished we had a 360 degree vision. Barlacha la was white sheet spread out in every direction and made us sway between dream and reality!

Adventure on the bikes!!
Beautiful Barlacha La all the way from now on

Pristine Suraj Tal

Sarchu is where we find tents pitched in the pristine valley of the mighty mountains…for a city bred person, having to stay and sleep amid these mountains and listening to the noise of the winds and the gentle noise of the rain/dew/snow on the tent was a surreal experience.

Camp site @ Sarchu


Getting there

The journey to Leh by road starts at Manali. Hence make Manali as a base.

By Road

a) There are overnight buses from Delhi to Manali. One can book the luxury Volvo buses run by Himachal Pradesh Transport Corporation from Delhi to Manali.

By Train

The nearest railway station is Chandigarh. If you are coming by train, then the convenient station will be Chandigarh. Unless, you want to visit Chandigarh, i would recommend you to take the bus as mentioned above.

By Air

The nearest airport is at Kullu which is around 40 KMs from Manali. The flights to Kullu from Delhi are notorious for cancellation/delay due to weather condition in Kullu. Keep this in mind while booking your plane tickets.

Stay Options

There are many options to suit all budgets. We stayed in Johnson Hotel which is one of the oldest in Manali and regarded as an institution. Huge and excellent rooms with a laid back atmosphere. The continental restaurant in the hotel is one of the best in Manali.

Other information

a) This trip is not for faint hearted. You really need to rough it out on the treacherous roads. So be prepared mentally and physically!! Also this trip may not be suitable for young children below ten years as they may get affected by Acute Mountain Sickness. For details on Children and High altitude, please take a look at this National Institutes of Health, USA link 

b) Remember that you will be driving from a height of 6000 ft in Manali to close to 18000 in Tanglang La.  Acclimatisation is the key. Else, AMS - Acute Mountain Sickness - is likely to hit you at these heights. Most of the cases will be mild and result in nausea, headaches, sleeplessness.

c) Though the trip can be done in two days, we recommend doing it in three days with overnight stay in Keylong and Pang. This will help one acclimatize better and fit and raring to go once you reach Leh.

d) Driving in hills takes more time and speeds are drastically reduced as road condition is not good. Always have buffer time to allow delays due to landslides and flooding of roads. Land slides are particularly common between Manali and Rohtang.

e) Doing the trip in three days will also help you stop and savour the beauty around. This will also give you time to take a detour to Tso Kar a beautiful lake in wilderness closer to Moreh Plains.

f) Our advice is to hire the local transport to do the trip. The roads are narrow and bad. The driver will not be able to enjoy the ride as his eyes will be fixed on the road. We have seen bikers on the road and we do not advise unless you are interested in adventure alone. Believe us; the guy who drives the vehicle - bike or car - will not be able to enjoy the drive. If you still want to drive your own car, make sure it is an SUV or a car with good ground clearance. 

g) Fill up fuel in Manali and carry supplies in Jerry cans. There is only one petrol bunk in Thandi and if it runs out of stock you will curse yourself. Diesel may be available in "black" at exorbitant cost but getting petrol will be difficult.

h) Follow the golden rule of hill driving. Start early and reach early!

i) Carry enough memory cards for your pictures. There is so much to click that you will regret if you haven’t had these chips.

j) Eat less and don’t overfill yourself while driving in hills. Drink lot of water.

k) Carry a good medicine kit. Talk to your family doctor and take necessary medicines.

l) Do not exert and run around in high altitude. Oxygen content in atmosphere is 30 - 40 percent lesser in these areas and will make you tired and sick. Do not stay for more than 10 minutes in passes above 15000 ft

m) Carry a good Binocular

n) Pack your long johns and woolens. You require them at these tented camps where the temperatures fall to 5 deg. If you have a sleeping bag, carry it.

o) Ensure that you have the complete vehicle accessories and kit. If self driving, practice trouble shooting techniques and become confident. Carry a good map of the area.

p) Dal – Chawal , Maggi and Omelets are staple food you get in dhabhas  on the way. Don’t expect anything more!

q) If possible try and plan your drive during full moon day period. You will possibly see the brightest moon ever in these rarefied and unpolluted areas at night in tented camps.

r) Do not rely too much on your cell phone. It may not work most of the time.

s) Do not sleep on the journey. You will regret having missed on some of the outstanding scenery in the world.

t) Lastly, if you get stuck up anywhere and find an army camp close by, go in and take their help. These great guys will never say NO. I can vouch for it having served in Indian Army!!

u) We would recommend that spending one day in Manali will help in seeing some nice places around and also prepares you for the long journey. The transport for the drive can be hired in Manali. The transport charges are generally expensive and it will be good to have at least four people travel in the taxi to reduce the cost burden.

v) It is recommended to go through a recognised tour operator who will ensure all arrangements are made on the way. We did the trip with Ladakh Safari who are very good.  Here is their website and you can get details here.

Related posts on Ladakh in this blog 


Dal - Chawal - Spicy lentils and Rice
Dhabha - Shack
Chai - Indian readymade tea made with milk, sugar and spices
La - Ladakhi word for "Mountain pass"
Tal - Lake

Did you like this post? Do you need help in planning a trip to Ladakh and Manali? Do write to us. Happy to help Smile 

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