After my trip last year, a lot of people have been asking me time and again about the trip and for some tips on this route.
The Manali to Leh road route is considered by many to be the greatest and arguably the toughest motorcycling road in the world. Every year, dozens of bikers from all over the world ride over this road, which crosses over some of the highest mountain passes of the world. The road is open from the end of May to about October, give or take a few weeks. The exact timings are dictated by the amount of snowfall that the passes recieve each year. This road is maintained by the Indian Army and is of strategic importance and so the Army takes all pains to ensure that for the few summer months, the road is never closed for more than a day or two, even if the weather is particularly bad.
The Route: Manali – Rohtang Pass – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa – ZingZing Bar – Baralacha La (Pass) – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Ghata loops – Nakee La – LachLung La – Pang – More Plains – Tanglang La – Upshi – Karu – Leh
You can never plan enough to ride on this highway. There are just too many unknowns. Even if everything else is all hunky dory, the weather can play spoilsport anytime. The only way to ride on this route is to keep an open mind and be open to exploring new options.
The Manali-Leh highway is full of bad roads, water crossings, glaciers (if you’re lucky) and crosses over some of the world’s highest passes and such the journey is highly unpredictable. Be prepared for uncertainties like inclemental weather, tyre punctures and any other mechanical problems with your vehicle. Carry any spares you think your vehicle might need and prepare for the worst.
Plan to take atleast three days to complete the journey although some people do the entire stretch in two days, it doesn’t make sense to rush up. The real fun is in the journey and not the destination.
Manali is the biggest town that you’ll hit on this highway and as such this should be your base if you’re coming from Delhi or any other part of the country. It is a very popular hill station and you can get fuel, food, accessories for your bike, clothes and just about anything imaginable in Manali. Also, it’d be advisable to stop for a night at Manali to acclimatize to the altitude.
Top up the fuel tank of your vehicle the night before you have to leave as you’ll be able to make an early start from Manali the next day, leaving the hordes of summer tourists behind. Rohtan Jot (Rohtang La) pass is a big attraction and practically all tourists who come to Manali visit it and leaving late will invariably mean ending up in a big traffic Jam (probably the world’s highest traffic jam) going up towards Rohtang.
Once you’ve crossed Rohtang, the road winds its way down to Tandi, which is the last village with a petrol pump before Leh. You should tank up here and also carry atleast 5 litres of extra fuel with you.
About 7 kms from Tandi is Keylong which is the only major town on the Manali-Leh highway. There are proper hotels, including an HPTDC hotel at Keylong and the town is at a lower height than Manali. If you want to break your journey further, you can stop here for the night, although there is not much to see in this sleepy town so I’d advise to carry on and probably stop here on your way back, if you’re using the same road.
For the first day you can break your journey at either Jispa or Darcha. Jispa has atleast one luxury hotel. Darcha is a temporary tented accomodation run by some enterprising locals. Of the two, Darcha is definitely the more enticing with the Bhaga river for company.
This is the most amazing day of the ride. And as such it’d be advisable to stop at Sarchu, just about 120 kms from Darcha, instead of hurrying down the road to Pang.
You will be crossing the Baralacha La pass at 16,500 ft to reach Sarchu. At the foot of the pass is a collection of tents/dhabas at a place called Bharatpur, which is another place you can think of for stopping, but it’d be advisable to cover some more distance since Sarchu is just another 40kms from Bharatpur.
Each turn and each hairpin bend will offer new vistas. Make sure you take enough time admiring the rugged terrain. This road is as much a test of the man as the machine, so don’t even try and push the bike. Ride slow and steady and take as many photo stops as you can.
Sarchu is another temporary collection of tents, slightly more luxurious than the ones at Darcha.
The campsite is situated on the side of the Sarchu plains and because of the location, high winds are the norm. Be prepared for the cold and doing your morning duties out in the open, unless you stay at one of the costlier camps, which usually have a Loo tent.
A lot of travellers cross Sarchu and head over to Pang to stay for the night but that is not recommended. Pang is at a much higher altitude than Sarchu and to reach there you have to cross two more high altitude passes, Nakee La and Lachlung La. Even if you haven’t had a single attach of AMS till now, staying at Pang is a sure way of inducing mountain sickness.
Right after Sarchu, you’ll be riding over the Gatta (ghatta/ghata/Gatha) loops, a series of 21 hairpin bends that’ll take you 1500 ft higher to the first pass of the day, Lachung La. Cross over the Lachung La and Nakee La passes and reach Pang for an early lunch.
Pang is at the base of a huge plateue and as soon as you get out of Pang, a short climb of about a kilometer or two will get you to More plains. Almost 40 kms of plain and barren land at over 16000 ft. The more plains are a sight to behold.
Right after the more plains, the climb for Tanglang La begins. Tanglang La is the second highest motorable pass in the world at 17, 582 ft.
Tanglang La is the last pass on the Manali Leh highway and after this the road is relatively straight and well tarred all the way to Leh. Picturesque villages, beautiful gompas and the constant company of a stream or two are the memorable parts of the last few miles of this trip.
The Manali – Leh trip can be easily done in three days and infact, take more time if you have the luxury. The friendly nature of the locals, the rugged beauty of the terrain are just some of the memories to take back from this trip and make sure you have enough time on hand to really have fun.
AMS – Acute mountain sickness
Wikipedia explains it much better than I ever can. I just have one thing to add: AMS can be extremely dangerous and do not ignore it. The only way to overcome AMS is to acclimatize well. And for that the rule of thumb is to ride high and sleep low. That is why Sarchu is recommended over Pang as a stop for the night, even though the distance from Darcha to Pang is easily doable in a day. Drinks lots of water and eat food on time even if you’re not hungry. Also keep a stock of chocolates, glucose or other high energy food with you.
Stuff to carry
This depends on person to person, but apart from the usual, make sure you have all necessary spares for your vehicle with you. If you’re travelling in a group, it makes sense to carry just one foot/electrical pump, but atleast make sure you have one spare tube each as well as cables for the accelerator and clutch. For people travelling by cars/SUVs, apart from carrying fuel, carry lots of water and any other necessary spares with you.
Also, keep some vaseline and sun screen handy since at that altitude you will most likely need oodles of both.