Today was an easy breezy rest day. The total distance we had to travel was 45 km, from Karu to Leh, and just about an hour of driving time. We rode along the Indus, appreciating the smooth road, the sun and the cool breeze. Enjoying ever last bit.
We reached our destination. It’s an uneasy feeling, for months you are planning a trip, preparing for it and in the last couple of days you are struggling towards it. But when the final destination is just an hr away – you don’t want it to end.
Many people rush through this route completing it in 2 days, which is a crime. Manali-Leh should be done leisurely. The real fun is in the journey and not the destination. Although if the destination is Leh you are still in for a lot more experiences.
Leh is India’s bond with the striking past, when long caravans plied the ancient Silk Route and lingered long in Leh to rest, to buy, to plan, or just to visit. Leh is situated at the summit of a triangular plateau formed by the Indus at an altitude of 3368m. Ladakh is the most remote region of India; a barren cold desert. Ladakh beckons for more than one reason. The defiance of its barren landscape is its unique flora and fauna, its culture, it’s clear blue skies and clean air, the land where things are done differently.
There are so many things to do in and around Leh that you need another week to get around it all. I’m going to need a couple of other posts to cover all of them. Right now, it is my day of rest.
(c) Photographs by Ritika Sabharwal, Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
Debring marks the end of the majestic Morey plains and the start of the long gradual climb up to Taglang La. Debring is also known for the camps set up by the nomads (Changpas) from the nearby TsoKar village during their summer months. There is a detour via Tso Kar and Tso Moriri to Leh (240 km) from here.
The stunning Tso Kar Salt wetland at 4600m is the breeding ground of numerous birds such as the endangered Black-headed Crane and the Bar headed geese. One can reach Tso Moriri and Karzok village (75 Km from Tso Kar) and observe the wildlife at the Wetland Conservation Reserve.
Most people do the Leh-Upshi-TsoMoriri-TsoKar-Debring-Pang route on their way back, since you require permits to visit TsoMoriri that are available in Leh.
We didn’t take this bifurcation and continued our journey to Tanglang Pass at an elevation 5415 m, it is the second highest mountain Pass in Ladakh, after Khardung La. It is also the last pass on the Manali to Leh road.
I had just about got used to the mighty plains when the twirling roads of the mountain started. The long-long-long sections of constant gradient climb went on forever. Interestingly we would be able to see the destination at all times. The visible peak may fool you with a sense that it is just a touch away- in reality it was a long hard laborious climb from the base.
Taglang La was breathtaking beautiful. Crossing over the five thousand metre passes affords views of the stunning and bizarre territory. We took a couple of pictures and we were off.
Taglang La to Rumtse (About 50 Km)
The pass was our last altitude feature before we descended down to the Leh-Ladakh valley. The snow was melting and trickling on the road, creating small waterfalls. The road was mainly sand or gravel with ripples that made driving a very shaky experience.
We saw a group of men and women making the road. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) does whatever it can in building and rebuilding these roads. One really appreciates all the hard work and effort that goes in to this. Project HIMANK was started in Aug 1985 exclusively for the development of road infrastructure in Ladakh due to the ever-increasing workload of the BRO in J & K. The Project provides the necessary wherewithal to keep the lines of communication open through out the year, not only in Ladakh, but also in the operationally sensitive Siachin sector. Battling tough terrain and extreme climatic conditions, coupled with a short working season of four months, Himank has carved a niche for itself in the Ladakh district of J & K and can rightfully claim the title “The Mountain Tamers”. Project HIMANK has the unique distinction of maintaining and improving roads over the three highest passes of the world viz. Khardungla, Tanglangla and Changla. They also have a lot of humorous signposts to give the travelers a doze of laughter.
We continued to lose height and finally reached Rumtse, We had just conquered the Second highest motorable pass in the world, a picturesque setting with conditions equally harsh. The road soon turned from bad to awesome, half way after the decent. The freshly made road is as good as freshly baked bread. Actually, after witnessing the kind of roads we had – much better!!
Rumtse to Upshi to Karu (About 20 Km)
We almost screamed with joy on the sight of the first inhabited village after 350 Kms after Jispa. Rumtse as it is called is situated on the banks of a local river, which starts from Tanglang La, a tributary to River Indus. We stopped at a ‘market’. Yup! I’ll call the six or so shops with all supplies a town market now. Firstly, these were not tents!! Also, there was even a STD booth.!!
We all had some lunch, a full thali experience with dal, veggies and rice. Walked around a bit and talked to the locals. Learnt – Julley. The most important word in Ladakh, that means – hi, thank you, good-bye, good-day and so on. Say it with a smile and everyone is your friend here.
As we continue the descent to Upshi the scenery changes dramatically as we arrive in a fertile irrigated valley by a river dotted by pretty villages and Stupas. The spectacular red colored mountains around us add to the beauty and richness of the scenery. Ladakh is unparalleled by any other landscape in the country.
The trip is a photographers dream come true. While we all were carrying our cameras and tripods, I didn’t take too many photographs. Probably because I didn’t know which one to take and which to leave. Everywhere one looked was a photo-op. I just left it to the others, while I enjoyed the ride.
Soon after taking a turn from Upshi, we reached Karu. Reaching Karu brought back some old memories for me. I had spent a long summer here when my dad was posted in this region. Back then, this was a dry desert with sand storms and all. Ladakh is a cold desert and Leh was part of that landscape. Things have changed now, Karu is green – Lush green.
There is a Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) in Leh & Karu. Here scientists have undertaken a successful plantation drive, driving up oxygen content in the region and even helping farmers produce vegetables. This acts as life support when transportation routes from the valley seize during winter months.
This was the last stop for the day, we all had mixed emotions, feeling happy to achieve what we did and sad that it was coming to an end. It’s like when you put your heart and soul into something and when it is over, you feel kind of empty. We had been through the highs and lows – literally and figuratively. That’s where the journey becomes an adventure and that’s what makes each kilometer on the 475 kms Manali-Leh an experience of a lifetime.
(c) Photographs by Ritika Sabharwal, Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
The morning sun was a welcome feeling as we got up the next day at Pang. Although Pang is at a height of more than 15000 ft, it is a major stopping point on the Manali-Leh highway. Travellers can be assured of both food and accommodation here. There are always a couple of parachute tented camps with necessary supplies.
We stayed at the Army Transit camp, which is considered to be the world’s highest military transit camp situated at an altitude of 15,768 ft. The medical aid that we received was at the world’s highest functional hospital.
Since I hadn’t been feeling well when we started from Keylong the day before, as soon as we reached the Pang Transit camp, the guy suffering from AMS and I went to the MI room. We were accompanied by the other four in the group. It turns out that everyone was low on oxygen except me, mainly because I was eating light and drinking lots of water. Funny how things work out! Some of us were having glucose water, which the doc said we shouldn’t have. The idea is to store the energy and not get burned out too fast. Also having a Diamox as a precautionary measure at Keylong or Jispa is a good idea.
Pang to Morey plains to Debring (About 50 Km)
We started early from Pang, by now we all were professionals at packing our saddle bags and strapping them on to our bikes. Water bottles – check, air pressure – check, jackets & eye gear – check, Pillion – check. There was a comfy rhythm in which everything fell into place.
Interestingly on trips like these the group dynamics builds and many roles emerge voluntarily, someone takes up the responsibility of being the – Planner, Timekeeper, Funny Guy, Safety guy, Inventory keeper and so on. Especially on a ride like this when you push your endurance to the limits, being in a group helps. In spite of all the dangers involved, the Manali-Leh highway rewards you with great friends and spectacular memories.
So, we were off to Karu today, and we were stuck in a traffic jam within 10 min from exiting the transit camp. I guess everyone at Pang decided to leave together. There were trucks, four wheelers and lots of bikes, on both sides of a narrow road. We wriggled our way thru and within 8km we reached the starting of Morey plains.
‘Morey Plains’ is Phenomenal. It is a flat distance of 45 Km situated at an altitude of more than 15800 ft, a big change from the passes we were climbing and descending over the last few days. The tarmac roads were being constructed and we got about 5 km of smooth roads. After that it was mostly like a dirt race track made by the vehicles passing through this stretch. The average speed at this altitude is not high, so one feels like you are shifting in space in slow motion.
The battery on my ipod had run out long ago, and with the helmets and other jingbang, it’s not easy to talk to the rider. Actually, by now there isn’t much to say. So you are forced to keep silent, a difficult task for me in ordinary circumstances.
Many times one has heard that people come to India for soul searching, or people going to the Art of living course or Vipasna. When we were in Pune, we met people who had enrolled into the Osho ashram and even Elizabeth in Eat, Pray Love comes to find inner peace. To all these people, all I can say is – Ride down to leh. It’s a better, more fun way – I promise. Like they say ‘In silence, find thy self’.
Jokes apart, this is actually true. Being with yourself makes one focus on what’s important, who one really is – you know, the good stuff. It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the daily grind of life, back home.
I read this sometime back and it kind of sums up what I want to say, “I travel because it makes more sense to me than not travelling. I travel because a breath taking landscape is hands down worth a 15 hour flight. I travel because I want to have a broader and deeper perspective of life. I travel because I love it.”
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
Ghatta Loops to Nakeela Pass & Whiskey Nullah (About 17 Km)
The road conditions worsened quickly. Tarmac was now being replaced by bumpy roads and soon we were left with loose gravel, stone chips, mud, slush and a lot of running streams. This was one of the worst mountain roads I had seen till now, and it was to continue all the way till Pang.
The Nakeela pass after Ghata Loops was actually a pretty soft pass, though it is just little shorter (15547 ft) than BaralachLa (16500 ft), unlike others it’s easy to just miss it. It’s one of those things that just creep up on you. That’s where the legend of Nakee La being dangerous both in terms of AMS and road accidents comes from.
Basically, riders in just about an hour have climbed about 2000 feet, the air is getting thinner and no one has realized the slight headache yet. Plus by now everyone is tired. The thought of still having to cross another pass is looming in the head. Apart from the human body suffering from symptoms of AMS, the motorcycle will also under-perform in such conditions. A ‘critical battery’ popup would be very appropriate here!
One of our group rider encountered the classic symptoms of AMS, usually accompanied by headache, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. We realized this when we reached a makeshift tent at Whiskey Nullah. We met a couple of other groups there, and almost all of them had one or two people suffering from AMS. On my husband’s last trip too they had riders from the group needing oxygen. The best way to avoid AMS is to drink plenty of water. The oxygen levels are low and H2O is 1/3 part oxygen, this is exactly what I was told at the Medical Aid room in Pang. (More about that on Day 4).
The tent owner gave us some hot lemon tea and made all of us have some glucose biscuits. We rested for a while till our friend felt a little better, but we were not sure if he was well enough to ride. It was getting dark and we had to make some decisions – stay the night in the tent or move on. There was just one thought in our minds. Pang was just 30 km and medical aid was easier to get there. It was about mind over matter. We decided – we must reach Pang.
Although we had gathered courage and motivated each other as much as possible, things were not going to be easy. We had to deal with innumerable streams running with freezing cold water from the melting snow. The second halves of the day have the maximum streams flowing untamed on the road. The wind was howling and the temperature was reaching icy cold levels.
Whiskey Nullah to Pang (About 30 Km)
We crossed the Lachungla pass a tad bit higher (16616 ft) than BaralachLa within half an hour of starting from Whisky Nullah. The roads, or what was left of them were of no help and at our top speed of 30 km/h we were making slow progress.
As if things were not bad enough we encountered the deadliest water crossing yet. What makes a water crossing dangerous is not the length or the depth as much as the speed of the water. This was a raging river and deep. There was an abandoned truck on one side and a narrow gap for us to ride, naturally!
Can you hear the horror movie soundtrack yet? Listen intently to the gushing stream sound effects, howling winds and 4 bikers looking to the left and right? Now what??
Well, nothing much. The pillions took of their shoes, rolled up their jeans and walked across the icy cold water. Took out the cameras and put it on video mode. The bikers took a deep breath and maneuvered the bikes to the best of their abilities across the ragging river. We all made it.
We got to know the next morning that a lot of other bikers got stuck there at night and the Army guys at Pang had to send reinforcements to help them out. The Army, BRO and other defence forces of our country are just AWESOME. I don’t think I say it often enough.
Apart from the excitement of all the water crossings, working under time constraints and a headache from AMS, the ride is ‘Pure Bliss‘. The landscapes en route to Pang are breathtaking. It’s like you have landed on the moon or on the sets of Chronicles of Narnia /LOTR.
We saw some frozen waterfalls, amazing wind eroded Bagha Canyon walls and lots of dry arid features, tunnels and some things I can’t describe.
We finally reached the Army Transit camp at Pang, our destination for the day. A visit to the medical facility for a dose of pure oxygen, then dinner and off to bed. We could hardly move and the men in the Army unit were playing cricket. We didn’t even have the energy to think – HOW?
We had completed half of our six day vacation and in a couple of hours we would be starting the journey towards the highest motorable pass in the world.
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
There are two possible ways of getting to Leh by road. The first is the Leh-Srinagar highway. The second route is the Manali-Leh road. This road weaves in and out among the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Western Himalayas over a stretch of nearly 485 kms . The road is open from mid-July to mid-October every year, depending on weather and road conditions.
Anyway, our mission today was relatively simple – reach Hotel Chandra Bhaga at Keylong before 6 pm so that we can get a few rooms to stay for the night.
We were to start our day at 5 am, and surprisingly even for a late riser like myself, this was not a daunting task. The excitement and enthusiasm was still very high and so was the fact that I needed to eat soon.
Mandi to Manali (110 Km)
On our way to Manali we encountered a dimly lit, really long tunnel, unexpected but enjoyable. In about an hour we reached Manali and had some eggs, paranthas and tawa bread. We had to do our last checks on our bikes, petrol, and other supplies here, as this was the last township. The next bike workshop after Manali was Keylong our destination for the day.
Manali is located at the confluence of the Beas & Manalsu Rivers in the northern Kullu valley. It is a popular tourist destination and hence the market is full of hotels, guest houses and restaurants . One can rent bikes here – and everywhere you look, you’ll see or hear an Enfield.
We avoided the market, and ate at a small dhaba across the river. On our way to Rohtang, we came across hundreds of River Rafting camps and trekking tours, something to plan for the next trip.
Manali to Rohtang Pass (51 Km)
As soon as one leaves Manali, the climb for Rohtang Pass starts. After about 50 kms of continuous ascent you reach the famous Pass.
Rohtang pass is a high mountain pass across the Pir Panjal range. It has the infamous reputation of unpredictable weather and traffic jams that last for hours. We encountered both – a never ending traffic jam and cold constant rain.
Rohtang La means a place where spirits freeze. Ro means spirit and tang is short for tangmo or cold. The Rohtang Pass weather certainly lives up to this reputation. Although I must admit, the ride till the pass was breathtaking, we saw our first of many – waterfall, cloud cover over the mountain, snow and an unexpected para sailing duo.
The permission to travel on this highway is given by Indian army after they clear the snow and inspect the road for its fitness and safety for movement of person and the vehicles. As it is the only road link between the Kullu Valley with the Lahul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh the traffic problems are inevitable.
As you pass the pass you realize sharp contrast in the terrain and how quickly things change. The range acts as a natural, cultural and ecological divide between the lush green Kullu valley and its Hindu culture vis-à-vis the dry desert regions of the Lahaul/Spiti/Leh and its Tibetan Buddhist culture. I was in awe of it all.
They day we were to cross the pass was also the day that Sonia Gandhi laid the foundation of the 8.8-km-long Rohtang tunnelat Dhundi at the base of Rohtang. The tunnel is expected to provide all-weather connectivity and reduce the distance between Manali and Keylong by at least 48 km. The tunneling is expected to be completed in 2015. But the traffic of party workers and tourists was not a good omen for us. It took us almost 3 hrs to reach the other side.
After Rohtang, the road descends into Chandra Valley passing through Khoksar and then to Tandi, where the Chandra river meets the river Bhaga.
On our way down we stopped at Gramphoo’s only visible dwelling, where we had piping hot Maggi. This was the same place my husband had stopped 3 years back when he took a trip via Spiti. We then realized the strategic location of this ‘Lama Dhaba – we now call The Only Place’ were the two paths met.
We were off too quickly for my liking, but we had already lost a lot of time and the 6 pm deadline was soon approaching.
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
Let’s be totally honest, when you hear stories about going to Leh on a bike there is a little part of you that says, I wanna do that some day. And if these stories are relayed to you every few weeks for 3 years or so – nothing can stop you from taking the trip.
My trip to Leh was a result of just that, a persuasive husband and his love for biking.
As a pillion rider I have a couple of new tales to add to the Chronicles of our Road Trip. But before I start let me just say a Big Thanks to my dear husband and my friends for organizing a ride on what they call The Road to Heaven.
This was not my first ever long bike trip. The longest I’ve travelled was a three day trip from Pune to Ganpatipule with a day stop-over in between. This was a six day trip as we were planning to fly back because we didn’t have enough leave. I am sure this was gonna be a little bit more exciting!!
The plan was simple, 6 people– 4 bikes. Ride down to Leh from Delhi via Manali. Take a couple of hundred snaps. Spend the last 2 days in Leh for sightseeing and fly back to Delhi. And all of 6 days to do it!
The route was essentially – Delhi – Panchkula –Mandi – Manali – Rohtang Pass – Tandi – Keylong – Jispa – ZingZing Bar – Baralacha La (Pass) – Bharatpur – Sarchu – Ghata loops – Nakee La – LachLung La – Pang – Morey Planes – Tanglang La – Upshi – Karu – Leh- IGI Delhi.
Luckily for us we stuck to the plan and had just a couple of minor hiccups, because no matter how much one plans, trip like these – the climate, road conditions and The All Mighty are very unpredictable.
I shall try to recount my side of the story in A PILLION’S LEH TRAVELOGUE series, hope you guys enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the trip.
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
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.
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.
The last day of a road trip like this one is always the boring. On one hand, none of us wanted to go back to our regular lives and on the other hand we were looking forward to being with family again. I had only about 200 kms to cover today since I was going to spend the night at Chandigarh at my parents place and the rest of the gang were going back to Delhi which was a good 500 kms away. It was quite humid in the morning but thankfuly it was cloudy and we didn’t have to face the summer sun.
We had barely gotten out of Pathankot and were getting petrol filled when it started drizzling. We took out our rain gear and kept moving on. Within a couple of minutes the drizzle turned into a heavy rain and when I saw, heavy, I mean downright downpour. It was almost as if the gods had started throwing buckets ful of water at us. The roads started getting flooded in no time and it was getting difficult to drive. I was actually more worried about the water getting in the engine since the water was almost till the exhaust. Our rain gear also was of no help in this downpour and we were all soaked. Fortunately, I had the camera and my phone stored in a polyethene bag seperately so that was safe. I would have loved to take a picture of the flooded streets but that was the last thing on my mind at the time.
We stopped at a roadside dhaba for a nice and filling breakfast of paranthas. The turn off for Chandigarh was a little ahead and we bade farewell to each other. I moved on towards Chandigarh and the rest to Delhi. The weather was lovely and I reached Chandigarh safe and sound for lunch and slept peacefuly for hours at home after eating a hearty meal 🙂
We couldn’t see much of Srinagar in the evening since coming in to the cantonement after getting out would have been a problem for us and also since Srinagar isn’t the safest of places, the cantonement closes its gates in the evening and no one is allowed to go out or come in after that.
The gates open at around 7 in the morning and there was no point getting up before that, so we had a good sleep and got up at our own sweet time. Got out of the cantt, after collecting our cameras and mobile phones which had been deposited at the main gate, and started on towards the city to get petrol for our bikes. Bikes tanked up we started towards the Dal lake and stopped there to take a couple of quick shots.
The trip was coming to an end and we were both sad and happy about it. Happy because we’d finally be back to civilisation, to our families and sad because, lets face it, we were having way too much fun.
We got up early and since the plan was to reach srinagar by afternoon, we had to be quick. We tied the luggage to the bikes, made a few quick calls back home to let them know we’re safe. Kargil was the hotbed of activity during the Indo-Pak war in 1999, otherwise known as the Kargil war, and our families back home were rightfully worried when we didn’t get in touch at all after leaving Leh.
Kargil is a major military base and the town has Army presence all over. There are points in the town where the enemy (Pakistan) posts are visible and signs like the one below have been put up to warn visitors of the presence of the Pak army.