Crossing the Himalaya by road from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Ladakh is one of the great journeys of the world. But it’s not an easy route. You only gain magnificent things with a little effort. This road takes you over some of the highest road passes in the world so you have to have acclimatised to altitude with a few days stay in Manali.
The road over the Himalaya is only open in summer, typically late June to early September. You will need to have your passport on you at all times as there are a number of checkposts on the way. The road can be in bad condition. Each winter Mother Nature does its best to destroy the surface with snow and ice and, come spring, again with melting snow water. In summer the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) does its best to repair the situation. Slowly things are getting better.
The 478km journey sensibly takes two days, three if you want to stop and admire the scenery. First night is usually spent in a hotel in Keylong and the second in a tent at Sarchu. Many do it in a hired vehicle, some by motorcycle or cycle and a few hardy souls by bus. If you’re going by motorcycle then you have to be prepared (see below).
From Manali it’s about 50km to the foot of the Rohtang La (pass), the first pass going north out of Manali. Then the road winds forever upwards in a spaghetti of hairpins. Gradually the vegetation changes out of forest into a grassland landscape. Marhi, a shantytown of basic restaurants, is near the top. The pass is not far beyond marked by prayer flags and a stone marker. You’re now at 3978m.
Often the climb up is obscured by cloud. Once over the top and into the Lahaul Valley it is as though curtains have been drawn aside providing a window on magnificent mountain views. The road plummets down into the valley in numerous hairpins before following the valley through a number of small settlements. If you’ve started early from Manali then you should get to Keylong by mid to late afternoon depending on the traffic and road condition.
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You reach Darcha, a summer-only settlement, by mid morning next day and it is a useful tea stop. There’s a police post here anyway so you have to present your passport. A road is being built will take you northeastwards to the Zanskar Valley, but for now your road leaves one valley and ascends another up towards the Barachala La at 4883m. You travel around hairpin bends through an enormous rock and stone field. The landscape is now in the rain shadow of the Himalaya mountains crossed earlier and the vegetation is sparse.
You reach Sarchu by late afternoon, again dependent on road and traffic conditions. These summer-only camps in a valley floor have largish, two-person, tents equipped with bathrooms (running cold water and toilet only) plus camp beds with blankets. There is always a restaurant tent. Because of the altitude it gets very cold at night and there is difficulty in sleeping.
The road then follows the valley for some distance and at a river crossing over a rickety steel bridge enters the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is another police post here. Some 50km farther on the road leaves the valley to start the ascent towards the 5,060m Lachlung La via the Gator Loops. These are an incredible 20km of switchback roads that cling to the precipitous mountainside, one loop concealed from the next so you seem perched on a narrow ledge with nowhere to go.
From the pass the road, often in poor condition, swoops downhill to enter the surreal gorges at Pang. These lead to another summer-only, tent settlement and another checkpost. The road then climbs up to the Morey Plains, a wide corridor flanked by low hills; you’d never realise that you were among mountains.
‘I once stopped here on a crossing by motorcycle for an urgent call of nature. I was absolutely alone, very strange in this very crowded country. Removing my helmet I could hear nothing but the sound of silence, real silence. Then a dog came ambling by, from where and going where I wouldn’t know.’ Patrick Horton
The plains then give way to a slow ascent of Taglang La, the second highest road pass in the world at 5317m. You then descend to Lato and Miru the first permanent settlements since Keylong. This is definitely Buddhist Ladakh with its distinctive architecture and chortens (white Buddhist shrines). A spectacular ravine then sweeps you down to Upshi. The rock layers are alternatively green and magenta stained by different minerals; the strata are near vertical and differential erosion has given the ravine tops a serrated profile.
At the bottom the road joins the Indus Valley at Upshi with a last police checkpost. The valley is a green oasis in a high altitude desert and after the barrenness of the crossing you’ll revel in the green lushness Now the road is dusty but well paved. Military camps abound and you’ll get your first glimpse of the magnificent gompas (monasteries) at Thiksey, Shey and Stok.
Many ill-prepared motorcyclists come to grief either through motorcycling inexperience, a badly maintained machine or running out of petrol. The altitude and poor road surface make this a punishing but superbly challenging journey for both rider and motorcycle.
There is no fuel station between Tandi and Leh, a distance of 365km – far beyond the standard tank capacity of any motorcycle. Ten litres of additional fuel must be carried, suitable plastic containers can be bought in either Manali or Leh but make sure they don’t leak. Tools to do basic repairs and punctures should be carried plus spare clutch and brake lever assemblies. If you take that likely tumble these assemblies can easily break leaving you without clutch or front brake.
Also essential is cold-and wet-weather gear, including boots, because the road can become quagmired, flooded and sandy. Motorcycles can be hired in Manali and Leh, but try one out for several days before committing it to the trip. There are a number of motorcycle safaris that travel this route where motorcycles are provided with a mechanic in tow.