The road across the Himalayas to Leh in Ladakh is breathlessness unsurpassed, thanks to both its altitude and scenic landscape. The two popular routes to Leh are from Srinagar via Kargil on the Srinagar-Leh Highway and from Manali via Sarchu and Dharchu on the Manali-Leh Highway. These routes are only open from June to October. However, it is a long and tiring journey of minimum two days, the reward is the spectacular sights of the mountain country, alluring blue rivers and the passes over 13,000 ft that takes you to your destination. The respective night halts on the two routes are Kargil and Sarchu.
The Leh-Manali Highway is a highway in India connecting Leh and Manali. It is open only between June and mid-September when snow is cleared from the road by the Border Roads Organisation. It connects the Manali valley to Kullu valley, Lahaul and Spiti and Ladakh. It is made part of NH 21, with completion date of 2012.
The highway crosses some of the highest mountain passes in the world, including Rohtang La 3,978 m (13,051 ft), Baralacha La 4,892 m (16,050 ft), Lachulung La 5,059 m (16,598 ft) and Taglang La 5,325 m (17,470 ft). The latter two passes are less problematic over former due to less snowfall in Ladakh.. Between Lachlung La and Taglang La this road crosses the More plains. A tunnel is being constructed to bypass Rohtang pass to make the highway an all-weather road.
As the journey along the road normally takes two days (or more depending on road conditions), many tourists and travellers make overnight stops at Jispa and tented camps such as Sarchu. Alternately, overnight stops can be made at Keylong. Distance between Manali and Sarchu is 222 km (138 mi) in Himachal Pradesh state, and distance from Sarchu to Leh is 257 km (160 mi), with total highway length of 479 km (298 mi). Owing to the high altitudes and the low-oxygen air, many travelers experience mountain sickness or in some cases even acute mountain sickness.
Leh-Manali Highway was designed, built, constructed and maintained in its entirety by the Indian Army and is capable of supporting the heaviest of their vehicles.
The road from Manali is open from the month of June to mid October. For almost half of its length, it is over 13,000 feet. The route passes through five high altitude passes. The terrain is so high and so barren as to have no settled habitation. Infrastructural support is at a bare minimum. The road conditions are different every year owing to landslides, amount of snowfall, glacial melts and the progress of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), an Army support organization whose job is to build and maintain all roads leading to the Indian Borders.
Manali-Leh drive should be done leisurely. Your first ever ride on this stretch will be the best; no matter how many times you ride on this road thereafter, you cannot beat your first experience on this route. It's better to start the ride from Delhi. Delhi to Manali is approximately 600 km and around 12 hours drive.
Once in Manali, make sure you rest for at least a day to acclimatize to high altitude. Manali is a popular hill station so in the summers it is filled with weekenders and tourists from all over the world. It's better to start early in the morning to avoid tourist traffic. The Manali-Leh highway is a roller-coaster ride of high-altitude passes, bad roads, landslides, glacial melts, broken bridges and what not. So don't mistake it for 475 kms on a normal highway and a single day's ride. Manali-Leh drive should be done in two or three days. One also has to deal with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
As soon as one leaves Manali, the climb for Rohtang Pass starts. After 52 kms of continuous ascent you reach Rohtang Pass. After Rohtang, the road descends into Chandra Valley passing through Khoksar and then to Tandi, where the Chandra river meets the river Bhaga.
Jispa, Keylong or Darcha, all are approximately 35 kms from each other after Tandi. Jispa has a hotel. Keylong, the only major town on Manali-Leh Highway has less luxurious but concrete hotels and guest houses. Darcha is a temporary tentship where one gets a chance to interact with locals, listen to the Bhaga river flow, experience the chilling cold and perform morning duties out in the open.
Many visitors stretch the first day's journey up to Sarchu which is another tented accommodation and 120 kms further from Darcha. It depends on how many days you have at your disposal. Halt at Sarchu, just 120 kms into the ride from Darcha. But the small distance is a pure bliss of bad roads, streams, freezing temperatures, breathtaking landscapes and of course, headache from AMS.
To reach Sarchu, one has to cross Baralacha-La pass at 16,500 feet. Baralacha-La is the place where most travellers encounter symptoms of AMS, usually accompanied by headache, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. One also has to deal with innumerable streams running with freezing cold water from snow capped mountains.
The road before Sarchu is also the worst patch on Manali-Leh highway on any given year and also with maximum streams flowing untamed on the road.
After descending from Baralacha-La (actually the whole Manali-Leh Ride is riding up and down from one pass to another) you will get a small tented accommodation at Bharatpur and subsequently at Sarchu, where you have high profile tents with attach toilets to very basic tents put up by locals.
The best ride on Manali-Leh is also after Sarchu. After Sarchu, the state of Jammu and Kashmir starts and soon the Gata Loops happen - a succession of 21 hair pin bends lifting you 1,500 feet higher. And soon after, the Lachlung-La and Naki-la passes follow before one reaches Pang.
The road after Pang rises onto the More Plains, 42 kms of well tarred road, which is a welcome relief. After More Plains the climb for Tanglang-La, the second highest motorable pass at 17,582 feet starts. This is also the last pass on Manali-Leh highway. After the Tanglang-La descent, small villages, green fields and "JULLEY!" - a greeting in the Ladakhi language will add life to the relative straight road to Leh. Leh can be comfortably reached at a leisurely pace from Sarchu in a day.
Best time to ride on Manali-Leh Highway
The Manali Leh Highway is open to vehicular traffic for only four and half months. BRO (of Border Roads Organisation) starts clearing snow and rebuilding bridges from May onwards. This is the general practice, but the opening of the road usually depends on the amount of snowfall the region has received through winter. Mid-June is a good time to start if you like to see snow on the passes, experience bone chilling cold and ride on rough patches. By July-August, snow on the mountain tops is less; BRO would have repaired most of the portions on the highway and the temperature is bearable. By early September, the road is in a near perfect condition. But all the above applies for a normal season with no sudden weather changes, which is not the case every year, and that's the best part. That's where adventure comes in the journey and this is what makes each kilometre on the 475 kms Manali-Leh an experience of a lifetime.
The overland approach to Ladakh from Kashmir Valley via Kargil is approx. 434 Km, which remains open for traffic from early June to November. The most dramatic part of this road journey is the ascent up the 11,500 feet / 3,505 m high Zoji-La, the pass in the Great Himalayan Wall that serves as the gateway to Ladakh. Usually the Srinagar - Leh circuit is covered in the span of two days with a night stop at Kargil; however you can make it a three day journey with another night stop at either Alchi or Lamayuru.
Srinagar - Sonamarg (85 kms): The journey from Srinagar to Sonamarg takes you through some of the magnificent vistas Kashmir is renowned for. The journey is pretty straight forward and you will be in Sonamarg in couple of hours, take a breather here and marvel at the beauty of Sonamarg i.e. meadows of gold.
Sonamarg - Drass (62 kms): From Sonamarg the landscape starts changing dramatically all the way till the famous Zoji La pass (11,640ft), roads on the both side of the pass are in bad condition with lots of gravel, during rain the gravel turns to slush, so if you are planning to attempt this pass during rain, be prepared for some wheel spin fun! The traffic to the final summit of the pass is controlled and visitors have to get themselves registered to proceed further. This is also the toughest of few kms of the entire Srinagar - Leh highway, beyond which tarmac is fantastic.
With in an hour of crossing Zoji La, you would be at Drass. If you have reached here late in the afternoon then the recommendation would be to have your meal here especially if you are a vegetarian, in Kargil the food isn’t that good and for vegetarians finding food can be a bit of chore.
Drass - Kargil (58 kms): A few kms beyond Drass is the Drass war memorial, built in the memory of fallen soldiers in the 1999 Kargil war and a must visit for every traveller passing through this route. From here it is a straight run to Kargil and you will be there in less than an hours time. Kargil is the intended pit stop for the majority of travellers and thus has quite a few accommodation options.
Kargil - Lamayuru (110 kms): 40 odd kms down the road is the town of Mulbek, a sleepy town which many would pass through without knowing the fact that next to the road is a statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha. It is believed that the 9 meter high statue carved out of solid rock was built in 7th or 8th century. Although one is not allowed to take photographs of the statue, the statue itself is a must see for any one passing through Mulbek. A short ride from Mulbek will take you to 12198ft high Namika La, a windy yet scenic pass. Roughly 40kms Namika La is Fotu La, the highest point on the Srinagar - Leh highway, (13,479ft). After short yet scenic ride/drive you will reach the village of Lamayuru, Ladakhs most famous and one of the oldest Gompas. Take some timeout here for a quick photo shoot and a visit to Gompa, else plan a dedicated day for it and move on.
Lamayuru - Leh (125 kms): Few kms down the road from Lamayuru are the Hangro Loops, the 18 loops are fast yet sharp loops with steep gorges. Next major attraction comes in the form of Gurudwara Patthar Sahib located in the town of Nimmu (55kms from Leh), beyond which its fast and straight forward drive to Leh.