Leh-Ladakh : Planning The Journey (Part One)

Introduction
Rugged landscapes surrounded by barren mountains, crystal clear lakes, relentless sun and lush green pastures & monasteries dotting the landscape – and you know that you have arrived in the magical land of Leh-Ladakh! Also known as the Cold Desert of India, Ladakh (the land of high passes), is a region in the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir and lies in the rain-shadow region of the Great Himalayas. The largest town in Ladakh is “Leh” lying on the historic “Silk Route” and was an important stopover on the trade routes along the Indus Valley. Off late, Leh-Ladakh has become a “booming tourist destination” for Indians & foreigners alike.

Lush green landscapes surrounded by equally barren mountains.
Lush green landscapes surrounded by equally barren mountains.

This place was relatively unexplored a few years back, however, suddenly this place has occupied the coveted spot in almost everyone’s travel bucket list. From the past 3-4 years - everyone around us was suddenly visiting Leh-Ladakh - Family, friends, friends of family, friends of friends. Come June/July and our Facebook feed would be filled with posts/photos of this beautiful place that looked picture-perfect in every frame. And if pictures weren’t enough, people who returned from their Leh vacation went overboard trying to describe this place. Almost everyone said the same thing – It’s not just a destination, it’s a lifetime experience!!

Trademark Flags!
Trademark Flags!

Needless to say, we were intrigued and so we added this destination in our ever-growing list of places to visit. As the years went by, something or the other always popped up and we almost never made it. But all of that changed last year when we made a deal to explore more of Indian destinations and a trip to Leh-Ladakh seemed more than fit to kick-start it than anything else.

For a great time visit:

The best time to travel down to Ladakh is in summer i.e. from the months of May to September. Honestly speaking, you can visit Ladakh anytime of the year and yet be blown away by it's beauty!! There are a whole lot of winter vacation options too in this place but that is a post for another time. Almost all of the day-trips/overnight excursions start from Leh and hence, Leh is the focal point of the journey.

Colors play a havoc at every turn in Leh!
Colors play a havoc at every turn in Leh!

Since we were pretty excited about this destination, we didn’t wait for long in summer to take this trip. Come first weekend of June and we had our tickets booked and we were ready to roll!!

Reaching Leh
The options to reach Leh can be majorly divided into two – Road Trip & Plane Journey.

If you have less time on your hands then you can opt for the latter option. One can take the flight to Leh (which goes via Delhi) and after a day of acclimatisation, you can start taking the various excursions. On the other hand, if you have a chance of accommodating a few extra days into your vacation & are looking for a more adventurous option then the road journey the most preferred and the most fun way to do this vacation.

A road trip to Ladakh is like a dream waiting to happen and is unlike any road trip that you have ever experienced. You will encounter some of the highest mountain passes & motor-able roads in the world. Rugged landscape combined with breath taking views makes this journey such a scenic drive that you will be awestruck almost every time you look out of the window. However, as it goes with all things beautiful, this road journey is not an easy one. It will take a toll on you if you do it wrong but if you are well prepared in advance then this journey is an extremely stunning experience and worth doing at least once in a lifetime.

Somewhere along the road!
Somewhere along the road!

The road trip is again divided into two –
1. Srinagar Leh Highway
2. Manali Leh Highway

Option 1: Srinagar Leh Highway
The Srinagar-Leh highway is the easier way to get to Ladakh as compared to the Manali-Leh Highway. And that’s exactly what makes it the most preferred one too. Most of the tourists opt for this highway since it has better roads, straighter routes, better accommodation at the touristy places and good availability of fuel. However, the most important reason is that this route is much easier on your body with respect to the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). AMS or altitude sickness is a condition usually occurring at around 2400 m above sea level where the body is affected by high altitudes. The most common symptoms are dizziness, headache, nausea & vomiting. If neglected or if the body is not acclimatized properly, the conditions may worsen. Considering this view, the road from Srinagar is pretty straight forward, does not wind up & down and starts from a high altitude gradually descending down towards Leh. Hence, you are not hit by AMS and can have a comfortable journey. Most people visit Srinagar, explore Kashmir (Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam) before taking the Srinagar-Leh highway and then leave Leh by the Manali-Leh highway.

Option 2: Manali Leh Highway
The Manali-Leh Highway is a completely opposite entity as compared to the Srinagar Leh Highway. This 484 km long magnificent highway is tough, long and full of high altitude passes which makes it an extremely adventurous journey in itself. Initially, this highway was not that well developed and riding this road was akin to a nightmare. However, in the last decade the army has worked relentlessly on this highway and now this glorious highway is surpass able. If you try and find more about this highway, any search engine will throw up hundreds of stories about the joy & terror that people experience in equal parts while taking up this journey.

Every frame along this journey is picture-perfect.
Every frame along this journey is picture-perfect.

Once you have done the Manali-Leh Highway, there is no going back. It offers everything that an adventure lover might expect from a road trip. Having said that, there are a few things to keep in mind before starting. The altitude is never constant, it always keeps changing and remains on the higher side. On most of the journey except for the main halts, civilisation is non-existent with only tents popping up at random places suggesting tourist population.

Needless to say, adequate planning is the most important key while travelling on the Manali-Leh Highway. Research well enough & well in advance to get an idea about the devils that you will be facing on this road and plan your stay/journey accordingly. The starting point i.e. Manali is at 1950 metres of altitude and the highway takes you upwards towards Leh which is at 3500 metres. Thus, in order to avoid being hit by AMS (which by the way is really nasty), a good rule to follow is to take night halts at equal distant altitudes. Generally, the route that people follow to stay overnight is Manali/Solang – Jispa/Keylong – Leh.

Note : Movement of non-HP (Himachal Pradesh) vehicles on the Manali-Rohtang pass road is not allowed. If you are travelling in a non-HP vehicle then you need to have a permit from Manali. Similarly, movement of non-JK vehicles for sightseeing inside Ladakh is not allowed. However, you can take a HP vehicle directly to Leh from the Manali-Leh Highway and then hire a local cab in Leh for excursions/sightseeing. Or you can directly take a JK vehicle from Manali (after taking a permit ofcourse) and use the same vehicle from Manali-Leh and then from Leh and around.

PLANNING & TIPS
We had decided on taking the Manali-Leh road from the Manali end to reach Leh. We had the trip planned out before and had booked the hotels/tents/excursions beforehand. A point to be noted is that since June-July is the tourist season, all the bookings have to be made in advance. If you try to do spot bookings then there are chances that you will not be finding accommodation in places of your choice. Also, since this was a road trip, the car/vehicle had to be a Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) vehicle & to be on a safer side we had booked the vehicle beforehand too.

Spot-bookings for day-trips/overnight excursions from Leh can be done in Leh, but if they are preferred if you are traveling alone and don’t mind the company that you end up with.

Before we actually start on the Journey to Leh, some important points you must remember:
1. AMS – Perhaps the biggest hindrance to your Leh vacation will be Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Hence, we would suggest you to read up on AMS and make yourselves aware of this beast. AMS does not affect everyone in the same way so while some may be completely unaffected, others might have a real bad time. Know your limits, take steps to acclimatize your body to the high altitudes and be well equipped with the medication. The most common medication for AMS is Acetazolamide (sold under the trade name Diamox). In case the symptoms worsen then do NOT ascend further, start descending and seek proper medical help. Drink enough fluids so as to keep yourself well hydrated, eat enough food but do not overeat & avoid alcohol in order to curb the effects of AMS. If you are taking a road trip to Ladakh, then it becomes easier to acclimatise since you can take pit stops according to your needs and ascend the altitudes at your own pace.

Ladakh is quite remote and hence, to find medical supplies along the road can be quite a task. In Leh, Tso Moriri and Pangong one can find army hospitals where treating travellers for AMS in not uncommon. However, it’s best to go well-equipped. Carry your own medication that suits you and a first-aid kit. Carrying an oxygen cylinder is optional, you can either do that or choose hotels/camps that have emergency oxygen supply.

2. Roads & Vehicles
In case you are planning to undertake a self-driven road trip to Leh on your motorcycle then it is extremely important to prepare your vehicle in advance. Your vehicle will be your companion on the road so do not take it for granted. There are a lot of groups that arrange such road trips each year to Leh and it is always better to travel in groups when you do the bike ride. The locals are helpful but it is better to have a group that is experienced and well-equipped for the journey.

Our ride!
Our ride!

As mentioned before, in case of a four-wheel drive, you need to have a J&K vehicle when you enter in the state of Kashmir. Self-driven cars are not allowed and you will have to take a local cab so book your vehicle in advance. We strongly recommend hiring a local driver along with a vehicle for a road trip to Leh and around. The drive will offer some of the most beautiful panoramic views, however, the road is equally treacherous consisting of bumpy, back-breaking stretches, steep turns and hairpin bends on mountain passes. Add to this the frequent occurrences of landslides and you know that you have to be not just an experienced but expert driver. Also, the local drivers are more skilled, accustomed to the routes and better acquainted with the various shortcuts/local support options. However, if you are keen on driving then make sure you study the road & terrain beforehand and plan your journey accordingly. Do not stretch yourself to try and finish certain routes of the journey in one go without any halts (Cannon Ball Run). Take proper breaks and do not drive you are tired / feeling sleepy, it can be a hazard.

3. Inner line Permit
Indian Nationals:
As the name suggests, Inner Line Permit (ILP) is a document that permits individuals to visit and tour the places that are near the Indian border. The ILP is valid for a period of 21 days from the date of its issue after which it should be reapplied. Indian nationals do not require the ILP for the regular tourist circuit in Ladakh. The farthest that tourists can go is Turtuk – which lies on the Indo-Pak border and is just 7kms away from LoC. Instead Indian citizens have to carry a valid ID proof (such as the Aadhar Card, driving licence, valid passport, PAN card etc.) which will act as your permit in Ladakh. There are checkpoints located throughout the tourist circuit in Ladakh and at these checkpoints you will have to furnish the copies of your ID proof and fill out a form to go further. Hence, do carry a lot of photo copies of your ID proof along with the original (of course!) for all the members in your group. The most popular tourist places such as Pangong Tso lake, Tso Moriri, Nubra Valley, Dha and Hanu villages can be accessed with a proper ID proof.

Foreign Nationals
Similar to the ILP, foreign nationals & Non Resident Indians (NRI) require a Protected Area Permit (PAP) issued by the Government of India (GoI) to visit Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri as well as other restricted areas. PAP is valid for a week (7 days) from issue after which it needs to be reapplied for, so inform your travel agent accordingly. Similar to ILP, keep photocopies of PAP to submit at various check points. You can apply for ILP / PAP through a registered travel agent in Ladakh.

All the travellers are registered at the entry points in Ladakh wherein they have to provide their basic details. In case of a natural disaster or any other emergency situation, it becomes easier to track the tourists and their vehicles via registration.

So now that we are well equipped with the information necessary to start our vacation, let's hit the road!! 😉

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