“The land is so harsh and the passes so numerous, that only the best of friends or the worst of enemies would visit you.” –Jimmy Nelson.
To reach the city of Leh, Ladakh’s capital in the north of India, travellers can choose between the two following routes either the highway from Srinagar to Leh, or the Manali to Leh road.
Srinagar to Leh takes three days to cover. The latter takes only two, and starts at the charming mountain station of Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. Although more taxing on the body, it is also more spectacular of the two roads. The altitude, however, rises more abruptly and in less time, therefore the risk of developing acute mountain sickness are higher.
With its extraordinary views and some very high passes, the Manali to Leh road is an epic adventure that many travellers, including bikers, dream of accomplishing. I heard it being described (very accurately as I later discovered) as a “cliff-hanger” kind of a road.
The high terrain requires the road’s closure during winter. It opens for only a few months in the summer, after its damaged sections have been rebuilt and repaired, usually in May. The monsoon can also cause parts of the road to vanish. Although there are comfortable asphalt sections, large parts remain unpaved, just dirt and gravel.
Countless blind turns require drivers to use their horn as a precaution, to make themselves known and heard to other drivers on the precarious cliffs. Some sections, although used by two lanes of traffic, are really only wide enough to safely accommodate one vehicle. Cars, public buses, lorries and cistern cars all pass each other gingerly, while hugging the cliffs. It’s not uncommon to spot twisted wreckage of the vehicles. That must have run out of luck, space and tumbled down the steep valley. Huge boulders from the towering arid hills sometimes land on the road, blocking it completely. We witnessed a group of road workers using explosives to try and clear boulder that locked people up on one of the high passes in the thinner air for a prolonged period. We held these men and women working in such a challenging environment in very high regard.
For a night we opted to stay in Jispa, rather than the more common Sarchu, as Jispa is at a slightly lower altitude. Still, I suffered from blurry vision, unbalanced walk, shortness of breath and hilarious hypoxic giggles! In those two thrilling days on the Manali to Leh road, the gain in altitude is a staggering 3360 metres. The Tanglang La (pass) is a dizzying 5328 metres.
Nevertheless, this remains one of the most beautiful road trips I have ever taken. Most of the length of the Manali to Leh road is uninhabited. The terrain is so unique, vast and ungraspable that it can only be likened to, perhaps, a different planet altogether.