Ladakh isn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is a place you keep going back to because one visit to the land of the Lamas does not do justice to its surreal beauty. I survived a snow storm on a bike, bought used gloves off a street vendor to avoid frost bite, rode across the most difficult terrain with hands and feet absolutely numb, yet I'm already looking forward to going back again.
When you have a choice between taking a more adventurous road and a fairly easy and comfortable path, always choose adventure. From green hills to lofty mountains with meandering roads to cold deserts, valleys and slippery snow-covered paths, the Leh-Manali highway is a visual treat despite its difficult terrain. I will not deny that movies like The Motorcycle Diaries and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara also played a huge role in us choosing a road trip over a flight to Ladakh.
Our 7-day road trip to Leh-Ladakh began from Delhi. We stayed the night at Manali to recuperate for the big trip ahead. Waking up to a misty morning in Manali surrounded by vast green hills instead of the concrete jungle, we were all set to begin our trip. But getting the permit to cross Rohtang Pass was a Herculean's task. It took us 3-4 hours of pushing, shoving and shouting to get the permit. The way up to Rothang wasn't easy. It gave us a glimpse of the condition we were going to face for the rest of the trip.
The Leh-Manali highway is touted as one of the most dangerous roads in India for nothing. The serpentine roads in between lofty cliffs make it impossible to see the traffic coming from the opposite direction. The occasional snow fallen on the road only made this highway one of the scariest I have ever driven on.
The road from Manali to Leh is a long one so we were to halt at Jispa for the night. As we neared Jispa, the snow covered mountains gave way to lush green ones. Smooth beautiful roads with the evening sunlight falling on the huge mountains made the journey even more memorable.We spent the night in tents at an altitude of 10500 ft by the river Bhaga with a bottle of rum, classic evergreen music and a small bonfire for company.
We left Jispa early next morning as we were still 340 km away from Leh. The road ahead wasn't easy. The higher the altitude, the more difficult it got! The curvy roads, blind spots, and potholes added to the uneasiness. But the landscape was as scenic as it gets. The sheer beauty compensated for the altitude sickness.
The best part of this leg of the journey was the changing landscape every few kilometers. Green hills gave way to huge snow covered mountains in Baralacha, which changed to golden yellowish plains in Sarchu and rock and sand formations in Pang. As we were entering Baralacha, the temperature dropped and we experienced our first snowfall here! Crossing the road through ice walls and snow peaked mountains surrounding us with the snow falling at Baralacha Pass was breathtaking. I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves.
The pristine white of BaralachLa is replaced by spectacular ochre mountains in Sarchu Plains. We took a meal break at Sarchu Plains, which is a high altitude (14107 feet) grassy plain forming the valley system between the Great Himalaya and Zanskar ranges. By meal, I mean Maggi because what food can you get this far away from civilization?
From the valley, the road climbs up towards the Tanglang La pass at 17500ft. The temperature was as low as 1°C. Strong cold winds hit us hard here and it became difficult to breathe at this altitude but the feeling of passing through the second highest pass in the world and the spectacular view of the plains below and snow capped mountains around us from the top made it an experience to cherish.
We finally reached Leh after driving for around 10 hours. A long exciting, adventurous and visually stunning journey! At Leh, we stayed with a local to take in the essence of Leh. Our driver was nice enough to help us book the place.
The Hall of Fame at Leh is a must visit. It is a museum constructed and maintained by the Indian army in memory of the brave soldiers who lost their lives in the Indo-Pak wars.
The next day we rented bikes to Pangong Lake because what is a trip to Ladakh without a bike adventure? Well, we had no idea what an adventure we had signed up for! Pangong Lake is about 225 km from Leh. We estimated the ride would take us about 5 hours so we started the journey at around 2 pm. Worst decision of our lives because by the time we reached Pangong Lake, it was pitch dark.
We were riding the bike at an altitude of 17000 ft with iced walls on both sides and rugged cliffs around. There was no sign of paved roads. Strong cold winds hit us hard and to top it all, it was snowing. We took a coffee break at Changla Pass (17590 feet), considered the third highest motorable pass in the world.
As we were descending Changla Pass, we found ourselves in the midst of a snowstorm. Luckily, we found an abandoned BRO hut where we waited for the storm to pass. When we resumed our journey an hour later, our shoes and gloves were all wet and we were freezing. We had no other option but to reach Pangong Lake and book a tent for the night.
It was already dark and we still had 40 km to cover. After crossing Tangste, we had no idea if we were on the right path. It was pitch dark with no trace of civilization. We were in such bad shape that we spotted an army camp, we requested them to let us stay the night. To our relief, we were told that Pangong Lake was about 2 km away. We reached our camp at 10:20 pm. The ride from Leh to Pangong is hands down the toughest and most difficult journey I have ever been on!
The next morning I woke up early because I wanted to capture the sun rise and boy was it beautiful! As the sunlight fell on the lake, it changed from a cold navy blue colour to a beautiful teal. We learned from our mistake and left Pangong early. We reached Leh before sunset without much trouble, fortunately.
Khardungla is the world's highest motorable pass. We were beyond us with excitement to ride to the highest motorable pass. It is only 34 km from Leh, but the road to Khardungla is a difficult one. Landslide and avalanche are pretty common in that region.
About 14 km from Khardungla, we saw a long line of cars waiting in front of us. The road had been blocked due to heavy snowfall ahead. We waited for more than four hours, but the roads didn't reopen. We gave up and went back to Leh to do some local sightseeing as it was the last day of our trip. Not being able to visit Khardungla is the biggest regret I have from the trip! But there's always a next time!
My trip to Ladakh is by far the most difficult, challenging and adventurous vacation I have taken. We made some terrible travel decisions but in the end, I was surprised that my body could take in so much abuse. The colourful landscape, beautiful mountains and warm local people of Leh did make it a trip of a lifetime.
1. Plan a minimum of 10 days trip if you are planning to go via road.
2. If you are travelling via NH 8 to Manali, eat at Mannat Dhaba on NH8. They have the most delicious parathas and lassis. The cherry on the cake is the home made butter served with the parathas.
3. If you are taking the Manali-Leh highway, halt at Manali first and next at Jispa. You can book a tent to stay in at Jispa from travel agents in Manali.
4. The road from Manali to Leh is a long one so be prepared for that. Do not hurry to reach Leh. Enjoy the journey and the changing landscape. It is unimaginably beautiful!
5. Carry Diamox Tablets for altitude sickness.
6. Cover your ears with a skull cap or beanie throughout the trip. Trust me, it will save you from a terrible headache as the altitude rises. I was the only one in my group to reach Leh without a headache.
7. Keep an eye out for the witty road signs installed by BRO.
8. Keep a day or two in hand. Everything doesn't work out as planned because of the unpredictable weather and road conditions.
9. It's a road trip, not a road race so ride/drive carefully.
10. We were a group of 6 and the trip cost us about Rs 21000 each from Delhi.
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