‘Gruelling’, ‘strenuous’ and ‘tough’ are all words we’ve seen to describe the road from Manali to Leh, usually combined with the phrase ‘only want to do it once’. It is also time consuming and with time being precious and these warnings ringing in our ears we had pre-booked tickets to fly back from Leh to Delhi.
The road is only open from June to September, for the rest of the year Ladakh is cut off by snow on the high passes. Each season, road crews have to use GPS to find the road and dig it out again.
A few months before the trip we had watched a programme ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Roads’ where they took 3 ice road truckers, stuck them in Indian lorries with a local ‘co-pilot’ and sent them off over the Indian Himalayas to make deliveries. Only after seeing it, shortly before the trip did we find out that this was the Manali-Leh road they had driven. After discovering this it became the part of the trip that Emma was most worried about – narrow crumbling roads only fit for 1 vehicle but with 2 way traffic and no crash barriers and sheer drops of literally 100’s of metres and we have heard a high mortality rate – none of this filled her with excitement. For anyone that has seen the programme (we need to find it and watch it again) names like the Rohtang La Pass will be familiar.
Having been given several different versions of the bus timetable from tourist information and tour agencies we got up early and the guy from the place we were staying at gave us a lift down to the bus station to get the 7am government bus. We got to the bus station at 6:30am and the bus was full. We were told by the bus office that the next one was at 9:30am and no we could not reserve a seat or buy a ticket and we were told by another bus guy there was one at 8:30am. We settled to wait and see what would transpire. After about 10 minutes Emma took a wander over to the shared jeeps to get touted and find out the price of a jeep and the likelihood of one heading off soon.
Sure enough there was a jeep going to Keylong for 300 rupees but we were the first of 9 people required so we stayed put by the bus stop and told the driver to come and get us when he had 3 or so people. 20 minutes later he did. He did try to upsell us a trip through to Leh but we want to take our time getting there, plus the fact the journey straight through would be at least 22 hours! We managed to get him to understand that Keylong was as far as we wanted to go. At 8:10am with an Indian couple, a pair of Swiss guys that became our companions for the journey all the way to Leh and 4 other Indian guys and a lama (of the Buddhist variety) we were on our way. There was still no sign of a bus.
The sealed road out of Manali is quite narrow before it reaches the part where the road climbs, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic we really had time to start to appreciate the fine weather – blue sky dotted with light cloud with lots of sun. The road is lined with numbered shops ie. Shop #222, that are set up for Indian day trippers who take a jeep up to the pass for sightseeing and often their first or only experience of snow. They hire ski suits – but these are no designer outfits they are from the ’80s. It made us giggle.
The road began to climb and get narrower although it was sealed for quite a way until the switchbacks began and the road turned to gritty mud. The road is basically sitting on a huge landslide so it moves continuously. Huge boulders the size of houses have fallen 100s of metres to either obstruct the road or add to the gritty mud paths that become either mud rivers across the road or very bumpy sections. We got about 1 and 1/2 hours out of Manali before we got to part of the road closed off for one way traffic only. We parked the jeep in the queue near the front and had to wait for 2.5 hours whilst downhill traffic made it through and the road re-opened. We sat getting to know the Swiss guys and drinking black tea. The altitude wasn’t really noticeable at this point, but that’s probably because we just sat on our backsides most of the time.
At 12:00 the road opened and quickly turned to a thick mud bath and was very narrow with steep drop offs in places. It wan’t quite as bad as the TV programme made out. Fortunately we had quite a fantastic day weather wise except for a few patches of cloud before the Rohtang La Pass at 3978m. It’s name translates to ‘pile of dead bodies’ referring to the number of travellers who have died up there. It is the source of the Beas river and home to a range of tea shops, cafes, souvenir stalls and many horses for short treks up to see the year round snow.
The far side of the pass drops quickly and the road was instantly better and very quiet as we left the day trippers behind. The Lahaul valley is spectacular with soaring mountains, craggy with rocks and dotted with alpine meadows on which every useful inch are crops growing on terraces, The waterfalls are spectacular and as we plunged downwards uninhibited by traffic the Spiti Valley came into view with peaks of snow, sheer sided valleys, glaciers and a huge torrent of a river flowing through.
We stopped at Khoksar for a brief tea stop and to give our passports over for the police checkpoint. Given the time it took (30 minutes for 4 passports) we guess the registration process is manual and bureaucratic. Following the river upstream we clung to the narrow road along the valley edge to Keylong. We were all pretty cramped with the 4 of us tourists squished onto a seat that was only really designed for 3. Marie’s leg was jammed against the window handles and ended up bruised and half crippled. Both of us ended up with neck and shoulder ache due to not being able to sit up properly. We were all quite considerate of each other though. A couple of us slept for a brief time due to the sun warming us up nicely and the effect of altitude. We dropped the Indian couple off about 15km from Keylong enjoying new found space for the final few kilometers. Our driver was very patient and considerate and the jeep didn’t have much power so it took us 8 hours in total with the 2.5 hour delay not the 5-6 hours we were expecting, so we arrived tired.
The air in Keylong is thin but we looked at a few accommodation options – some are pure extortion for what you get but there are some cheap gems among them. We got a room next door to the Swiss guys which had a view both up and down the valley. To the right was a huge mountain with a number of glaciers. After a bite to eat at the hotel restaurant (which was one of the very few places to eat) we headed for bed. Marie was sick after dinner and Emma barely ate anything due to a bad headache and feeling sick so we went to bed to try and knock the effects of altitude on the head. That night as we sat on the balcony we watched some incredible mountain lightening in the distance on one side of the valley and the moonrise on the other side of the valley all to the sound of gongs, drums, trumpets and chanting from the monks in the building beside us and the fluttering of prayer flags.
Keylong village doesn’t have much to see or so but the scenery is great. We checked out of our hotel and into another that morning. It was a special day – 28 days after leaving the malaria zone which meant we took our last dose of anti-malaria pills and enjoyed breakfast a little more. The new hotel was closer to the bus and jeep stand so when it came to leave at 4am in the morning we wouldn’t need to walk through the pitch black streets. Given the number of powercuts even if there was street lighting (which there isn’t) it would be unlikely that it would be on anyway. The hotel was a bit more expensive due to the location but was also a bit nicer.
The morning was spent having breakfast then hunting around for a jeep to take us to Leh. We thought this would have been easy but it turned out to be laborious. Given the lack of life at the jeep stand we checked out the cost and process for getting a bus and found we would need to book a day in advance. Eventually we found a guy at the jeep stand who told us to come back at 2pm and he would call his mate coming from Manali. Emma went back at 2pm and the guy called his friend who arrived ten minutes later. A big negotiation saga began and in a nutshell there was a lot of pratting about and discussion about staying at potentially 2 places which are tent villages on the high passes on the way to Leh (which we did not want to do under any circumstances). So after a long winded conversation which should have really been a 2 minute conversation Emma determined that yes he would go to Leh and that he would need to get some more passengers to do it but that this was likely. Emma asked to shake on it – the driver folded his arms and refused so we were still not 100% sure that a) we would get all the way to Leh and b) that the price would remain the same. Guessing we could find someone else in the morning if we needed to she left thinking it was a ‘maybe’.
With the jeep kind of sorted we went out to get a few supplies and left a note for the Swiss guys saying that if they were leaving tomorrow we might have the possibility of a jeep and the details of where it was leaving from etc and also info on how to take the bus in case they wanted to do that instead. We got back to our hotel a bit later to find Bruno writing us a note in return. He had found a jeep- was 95% confident it would take us there and pick us up as arranged and even better, it would only be a little more expensive for just the four of us – perfect.
The guy who had messed us about earlier in the day over what should have been a brief conversation not a 20 minute saga obviously found out we had other arrangements within about 30 minutes of Bruno leaving which lead to a big argument in the hotel reception with him demanding 2000 rupees and Emma point blank refusing, him getting his mate over to say we had a deal and Emma arguing that if someone actually refuses to shake hands then there is no deal and not to give her this bullshit about it not being part of Indian culture. We stood our ground and they threatened to get up at 4am and give us more grief as we left. We didn’t sleep that well that night as they were staying in the same hotel but we were happy to be travelling with the guys to Leh and trusted they would turn up as they said they would at 4:10.
There was total blackness when at 4:05am Marie went downstairs to see if there was any sign of life at the hotel reception. It was so dark she didn’t get that far before coming back for a torch and some company only to be followed back up the stairs by Bruno with a torch and our driver who had got in through the front door past the sleeping night staff. We grabbed our bags and headed out half expecting some more grief. We loaded our bags into the back of the jeep as there was plenty of space for them and merrily headed out of Keylong in the pitch black dark re-counting the previous night’s argument to the guys as we left.
We could tell the road gradually climbed but passing through villages in the dark we also knew this was the most populated part of the road. We saw a sign saying ‘last fuel for 170km’ then 20 minutes later pulled up to a shed at the side of the road where a blurry eyed attendant who had been woken for our purchase drained a bucket (similar to that in Burma) whilst the driver rocked the jeep (also like in Burma where they rock the buses at fuel stations) to get every drop they can in. It was a cold start to the day and we all sat pretty quietly until the sun began to rise and we could see the huge snow capped peaks around us. Not long after daybreak we stopped at a tent at a junction in the road and the driver asked for our passports. 5am and our first police checkpoint – Ladakh is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and while problem free itself it borders areas of Kasmir that aren’t.
Formalities completed we began the long climb to Baralacha La Pass at 4885m where we stopped to catch our breath and not only because of the breathtaking scenery which turned from green to glacial to warm reds. We had a brief black tea, contemplated that we had only driven about 70km in 3 hours. The sweet tea woke us up and we took in the increasingly barren landscape as we climbed up to Lachalung La at 5065m which gave us the first real signs of altitude with the start of mild headaches and passing peaks much higher than us at over 6000m the scale was hard to comprehend until we would see another vehicle in the distance.
The landscape began to change to a more arid one with rock formations like pinnacles and a strange white moonscape. We stopped at Pang for lunch which at 4635m made us all feel quite bad and not like eating. Marie nearly threw up, Emma had dizziness, Bruno could barely walk without falling over, Milon just felt sick. We didn’t eat much at all which was a good hint to our driver to hurry up. We weren’t feeling that great as we got back in the jeep and it was only later we found out that the army AMS unit gives out free oxygen there (damn it- we could have done with a top up). The slow descent out of Pang gave us some surprising relief as we hit a large plateau with a surprising straight sealed road for a long stretch. It was here we began to see the road gangs of India’s untouchable caste (incidentally picking one up as a hitch hiker and sadly shaking our heads as we drove past and they asked if we had any cigarettes).
It wasn’t long however before we were winding up again to 5359m to Taglang La which is the highest pass on the road and the world’s 2nd highest pass. Roughly 200m lower than the summit (height wise not distance) we got a puncture. Although this provided a much needed toilet stop (you drink more but also need to pee more at altitude) it really got the breath going. The driver had heard the air hissing out almost immediately so as soon as we pulled over, we bailed out and the jack was found and the spare was off the roof . 10 minutes later we were on our way again over the top of the pass before slowly making our way slowly down to the town of Upshi.
Upshi is a bustling little town set alongside the Indus River which acts as a lifeline to much of Ladakh. The road clung to the river edge squeezed against red cliffs and this was our first real view of Ladakhi life. The traditional mud brick houses, self sufficient agriculture, traditional dress and jewelry and Tibetan style monasteries. We stopped at Upshi for what seemed to be a significant bureaucratic process of road tax, commercial vehicle registration and tax and some more fiddling with the passports. We passed several riverside villages as the sun got lower providing some relief that the journey was really almost over. We passed two really pictureseque laces on the way into Leh which are Thiksey and Shey. With excitement the of discovering a Tibetan influenced whole different India we passed numerous military camps and infrastructure before reaching our destination.
Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through