(Part 1 in the series)
In June 2018, I was en route Manali from Chandigarh, embarking upon fulfilling my favorite dream – traveling to Ladakh! All the research encrypted in my mind, a map (hand-drawn with important info – being safe for the lack of connectivity and charging points.
Truly back to the ages!) and butterflies in my stomach, I barely took in the familiar views up till reaching Manali. This trip was akin to a high-school crush, but, for a place. Little did I know, it would turn into love at first sight!
One girl’s journey towards happiness, zen, cobalt blue skies, and the barren mountains. Stuff Dreams are made of, basically!
Reaching the starting point – Manali
DISCLAIMER: Yes, there are great posts on the exact route and pain points (the best one in my unbiased opinion is Manali Leh Highway Detailed Description ). This post does not intend on competing for the first place of best info provided, I believe we will lose that battle (the above-mentioned article is THAT good!). This post will take you down my memory lane, a perspective of this one girl having the time of her life, living out her dreams.
Our pit-stop was further ahead of Manali, at Palchan, thinking it will help in the morning. Now, having reached Palchan at 2 AM, there was no way we were beginning our journey as anticipated at 6 AM. We didn’t do too bad, however, and pushed for Rohtang-La, 40 KMS away at about 8 AM – after a quick morning chai.
Let's quickly dive into the details:
The pass they called easy – Rohtang-La
Greenery all around, snow-capped mountain in the distance and a beautiful mountain breeze kept us shutter-crazy.
An Environment Clearance Permit from Tourism Development Council – HP (can be applied online 7 days prior to the date of travel – here) is required for going beyond Rohtang-La (La is the Ladakhi word for a Mountain Pass). Local Taxi drivers are familiar with the route, but, it makes them risky drivers – we kept our eyes peeled for their erratic driving.
*You should understand important things to carry/pack on your Ladakh trip
Little ways ahead, traffic greeted us with astronaut-suit-clad-tourists enjoying the leftover snow towards the 13,050 ft. High pass. Traffic did get extremely irritating, and folks with no driving sense should be banned from driving in the hills. A single lane road in the hills is no place to park, especially when heavy trucks have to pass through! Period. Okay, rant over!
However, the moment we turned, after reaching the highest point of the pass, the views changed! The traffic thinned and then vanished completely, and we were well on our way! All the irritation disappeared, and what flooded us was the wall of emotions – does this exist? How lucky am I that I am experiencing this? Quick, someone pinches me!
Pro Tip #1 – Do try and cross Rohtang-La earlier in the morning, it will save you at least an hour of being stuck in traffic.
Choosing the path less traveled – towards Leh
As we completed the descent, we reached the tiny village of Gramphu, where the route for Spiti splits. I took the left turn for our adventure and drove next to the Chenab river towards Khoksar. There are quite a few Dhabas, the first mainstream (or what qualifies as mainstream in the hills) commercialized place since Manali. There’s also a PWD guesthouse. There are also medical facilities available here
Pro Tip # 2 – Ladies, do note this place – a clean washroom at PWD guesthouse would be heaven after 3+ hours on the road!
When food calls, you listen!
Upon reaching Sissu, we stopped to have breakfast/brunch/lunch. The air was cold, the view was breathtaking, and the food was hot – it was a delight. This place was also the first place of our first sip of the ginger-lemon tea without the tea bags. Ah, heaven! It became the drink of our choice throughout the entire trip. It can never go wrong with Ginger-Lemon tea in the hills.
Having covered over 80 Kms of our 220 KM journey of the day in about 4.5 hours, thanks to the traffic and the multiple stops to absorb at the views, we pushed from Sissu with our tummies full and a change of ownership in the driving seat!
Pro Tip # 3 – DO NOT OVEREAT – more on that later!
The MOST IMPORTANT pitstop, Tandi
We were still surrounded by the majestic lush green trees and saw a few waterfalls, thanks to the monsoon spell that was just kicking in. The roads were smooth as butter and we kept moving along towards Tandi, with views of the riverbed next to the road, one of the most important pit-stops on our journey. The only Petrol Pump for the next 365
Tandi is also at a lower height than Sissu, and some of us that were experiencing mild headaches started feeling a lot better!
Apart from the ever-important Petrol Pump, we also saw the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers. The merged river is then known as the Chandrabhaga river in J&K and Chenab river further down. It is a beautiful location indeed, surrounded by small step-farms and green hills all around. We didn’t stop here for long as the excitement for our ways ahead was unexplainable!
Pro Tip # 4: Tandi is your best friend on this journey!
Keylong is the next destination on the route followed by Jispa. It is HIGHLY recommended to spend a night here for acclimatization purposes. We underestimated the importance of acclimatization and pushed onwards for Sarchu, given our time crunch, and previous experience of high altitude. This turned out to be a massive mistake. No matter how experienced you are in the hills, it is never a good idea to risk AMS.
Halfway there to the middle of nowhere
Sissu to Jispa took us another 2 hours for approx. 55 km and now were driving next to the Bhaga River. There are a number of accommodation options at both Keylong and Jispa. If you do plan on staying at Jispa, there is a small monastery along with a lot of trails overlooking the vistas! This is also the last stop where you’d be getting mobile signals. My wonderful post-paid connection of Vodafone stopped working the moment we crossed Rohtang-La and didn’t turn back on till we reached back Manali – this was actually a blessing in disguise. Thanks, Vodafone for not working!
Post Tandi, we reached Darcha, where one has to register with the cops as a way of tracking the tourists. It’s a quick stop – several people in the vehicle, traveling from, traveling to, car number – and you’re done. There are lots of Dhabas if you need to stop and enjoy the views.
*Do refer to the handy list of places to stay on the Manali-Leh Highway
I truly wanted to stop the car every 5 minutes, in awe of the views I was witnessing. Darcha is considered the last established village in Himachal Pradesh, and the landscape starts evolving. The greenery began thinning, the mountains gained an edge of intimidation, and we were feeling isolated already.
Such joy! However, this unreal (surreal?), unimaginable beauty comes at the cost of lesser oxygen. This is why it is crucial to acclimatize and get your body functioning at lower oxygen levels.
*Read more details on AMS and proper acclimatisation.
Let the games begin – Evolution of the hills
Enroute Sarchu, with the views changing, we crossed many interesting little spots that we spent some time on.
Taken by surprise – Deepak Tal
The first one was Deepak Tal, a man-made lake – so serene and so bloody cold! Not a man in sight, not a living being in sight actually, we proceeded to enjoy the first real moment of quiet – every one of us, at peace in their own company, with the limited conversation, just surprised and taken aback.
No matter how much research all of us did individually, no matter the anticipation of the trip for months (and years for some!), experiencing the Mighty Himalayas, being in her lap makes you feel so safe and yet so vulnerable at the same time. You’re on edge, and the adrenaline in your veins is just the beginning of what is about to come.
We were surrounded by fog, the weather was cold, and I felt my lungs fill up with air, mountains, trees, my friends. This feeling is what it is to be happy. Travelers understand the need to stay and absorb it all in, let the view and the place become a part of you. But, more often, I have left a piece of me in particular places. It was one such place, one such stop!
Grudgingly, we moved forward – once more changing ownership in the driver’s seat. The roads become difficult after Deepak Tal, and the most experienced driver took charge. Around Deepak Tal, the mountains were now covered in snow, and the air was chilly. We had lost track of time, and due to the looming monsoon clouds, it looked gloomy and around-dusk.
Heating it up @ ZingZing Bar
Zingzing bar is infamous for Pagal-Nalas running on the road! We were fortunate that it was a gloomy day, and snow melting was minimum. We crossed the baby-Nala in no time, with no difficulty.
We had heard a lot about “Peace Café” where the owner is super sweet, the bikers usually stop and roll a couple to relax and unwind, and the conversations are ever flowing. This place serves great Tomato soup.
This is also the place where we met a group of bikers coming back from Leh. They were concerned that neither had we taken Diamox and nor had we stayed in Jispa/Keylong for acclimatization. Unimportant to us at the time, completely foolish in hindsight. They also informed us about the road conditions ahead.
Pro Tip #5- Do drink lots of water and carry a water bottle. Also, garlic helps with oxygen flow.
We still were not deterred or overtly concerned, which we should have been! An upward drive led us to Suraj Tal, one of the highest lakes, that’s almost always frozen! We were all mesmerized by the emerging views when the single-lane road was overlooking the lake.
It was hilarious (to us!) that the road seemed to end abruptly, thanks to a sharp U-pin bend, while we were in complete zen thanks to the lake. The shove back to reality just made us chuckle. Ah! The Himalayas, making you ever-present and teaching life lessons in the subtlest ways!
Next up was Baralacha-La. At 16,040 ft, this pass truly deserves a conversation of its own. The most magical and enchanting experience of the trip, it won’t do justice to mention in passing the charm of this captivating place.
Stay tuned for the next post!!!
When you do head out to the Land of the Gompa, remember, it is no small achievement! Welcome to our very own special community – we are now forever connected. The blue-as-can-be skies, the lakes that reflect the universe, the magic of silence, the mystic roads – they bind us. Whenever you meet someone who has left a part of their soul in Ladakh, you know you are in the presence of someone who already knows you. Keep on trippin’, see you out there, friend!
What is the most difficult road journey you’ve encountered? Are there any concerns that are stopping you from taking on this mammoth dream or have questions on how to plan your trip to Manali Leh Highway – share with me in the comments, I can help!
Do follow @nomadstoryteller on Instagram for updates on her next great adventure.