Leh-Ladakh : The Road Trip Begins : Manali to Sarchu (Part Two)
The Manali-Leh road journey is exquisite - Lofty pinewood trees dotted along lush green mountain slopes, a lonely field with nothing but a group of horses, streams of water gushing down the rocks on the mountain sides, sheer ravines, dramatic cliffs, and narrow winding roads with steep turns. True that due to the steep turns, you have to go slow (this was turning out to be the general rule of the trip!!), but then that gives you all the more time to take in the gorgeous surroundings.
So over the course of 15 days, the route that we followed was:
Chandigarh - Manali – Sarchu – Tso Moriri – Leh (local sightseeing) – Nubra – Leh – Pangong – Leh (local sightseeing)
The major downside on this route was that we did not take an extra night halt between Manali & Sarchu. This is because Manali is at an altitude of 1950 metres whereas Sarchu is located at 4290 meters above the sea level. This 230 km long stretch of road is full of high-altitude mountain passes, the highest being Baralacha La (elevation 5,030 m). Ascending so rapidly in just the span of one day is not advisable since it can cause acute mountain sickness (AMS). As mentioned in previous post, AMS is characterized by headache, nausea, dizziness and vomiting which can spoil your entire road trip. Hence, an extra night halt between Manali & Sarchu (mostly Keylong or Jispa) is a good option. Another downside of this route was that Sarchu & Tso Moriri both are above 4000 metres from the sea-level and we had planned to stay in such high altitude places on consecutive nights. There was a very serious hazard of us being hit by AMS at least in one place.
A very important point to note is that staying at Sarchu & Tso Moriri on your upward journey towards Leh is strongly not recommended – the keyword being strongly not. And almost all the blogs/sites that we referred to on the internet advised us against taking up his route. But we decided to throw caution to the winds and went ahead with this crazy plan. Also, since we had our own vehicle we decided that if anyone would be seriously affected by AMS then we would immediately move out of Sarchu/Tso Moriri and go to Leh directly. Thankfully, nobody was affected that bad and we completed our trip successfully.
Tip: In case you are moving down from Leh side towards Manali, then you are already acclimatized for higher altitudes. Hence, an overnight halt at Sarchu, Tso Moriri or even Pang (4600 mtr) will not be a worry.
Day 1: Chandigarh to Manali
Our trip started with a delayed flight, we reached Chandigarh around 2 p.m. instead of the scheduled 11 a.m. and thus were equally delayed in reaching Manali. The distance between Chandigarh to Manali is roughly around 350 kms. Ideally speaking, it should take only 7.5 hours (according to Google Maps) but in reality it takes nothing less than 10-12 hours!!
Since it was raining in both Chandigarh & Manali we encountered foggy skies on almost the entire journey. The drive is not as picturesque but the greenery on the mountainside & blue of the Beas are soothing to the eyes. This is a very long ride so leave as early as possible from Chandigarh. The road is good in a few places but in other places it is full of potholes and hairpin bends. Also, you will find lot of truck traffic on this route which further slows down the journey . The route that we followed was Swarghat - Bilaspur - Pandoh Dam - Mandi - Kullu - Manali. After a lengthy and tiring 10-hour bumpy ride, we finally reached Manali at midnight. We had informed our hotel owners in advance about our late arrival so that there would be no hassles during check-in.
A word of advice: Do not plan your journey considering the time frame given by Google Maps. You will end up messing up your entire journey.
Day 2: Manali to Sarchu
After the tiring ride from the day before, we woke up surprisingly fresh the next day. We were advised to leave early from Manali for Sarchu since as the day progresses the traffic on this route increases. This is because in addition to tourists travelling to Sarchu/Leh, there are numerous day trips arranged from Manali to Rohtang and that adds to the traffic as well. After months of swooning over the pictures from other’s timelines and after months of extensive planning and packing, we were finally going to start our journey towards Leh. To say that we were pretty excited would be an understatement, we were ready to rock & roll!!
Marhi - After filling up the fuel tank (to the Full) in our vehicle, we were ready to hit the road. The first pit stop has to be Marhi – a village that lies between Manali and Rohtang Pass. You will find a lot of roadside eateries where you can have a hearty breakfast with beautiful views. The ascent to Rohtang La starts from Marhi.
Rani Nala - Next up is Rani Nallah which is a glacier point on the way to Rohtang Pass. Rani Nallah is known for roads flanked with huge snow walls on both the sides. However, due to these walls, the road becomes narrow resulting in a major bottleneck in the traffic. Hence, it is always recommended to leave at the earliest from Manali while travelling towards Rohtang in order to avoid the traffic. The road without these snow walls is also no respite, since once the snow starts melting the road turns into a stretch of slush and mud. Sometimes the streams of water from the melting snow flow down from the mountain sides on to the roads making “nallahs”. Crossing such nallahs on narrow roads was even more difficult than it seemed but our driver expertly cruised the vehicle.
Rohtang Pass - For some time after Rani Nala, it seemed like the only thing that we were doing was going up and down, down and up with mountains surrounding us everywhere. But then our driver/road guide told us that it was really an ascent to Rohtang Pass. The literal translation of Rohtang is “a pile of corpses” which is due to the fact that in early days a lot of people could not survive the high altitude combined with the bad weather at this pass. Around 51kms away from Manali and at an altitude of 3978 metres, this pass is notorious for its unpredictable weather changes. During the months of winter, the Rohtang Pass is closed due to heavy snowfall. It only opens in the month of May/June and remains open till the weather permits (which is around November). There is no accommodation at Rohtang Pass but there are a lot of eatery options as well as options for various activities such as paragliding, skiing, mountain biking and so on. Add to that the beautiful panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks, the Chandra river, the numerous waterfall streams due to the melting snow on the way and you will know why Rohtang is a coveted tourist destination in Manali.
P.S. Needless to say, tourists flock this pass in summer. Hence, expect a heavy rush at Rohtang Pass, both in crowd as well as traffic.
Gramphu-Kokhsar-Sissu - After Rohtang, the road descends down towards the Chandra valley, straight into the villages/towns of Gramphu, Kokhsar and Sissu. Gramphu, a small village lying north of Rohtang leads to Spiti Valley as well. Kokhsar is an important stop since foreign nationals have their passports/visas checked at the police check post and Indians have to register themselves here. Sissu, located along the banks of Chandra river is particularly known for its waterfall and helipad. The roads are fairly good up to Rohtang La, but after that condition of road gets really bad till Khoksar. Since it was early in July, road construction work was still going on in some places.
Tandi - After travelling along the Chandra river, you will then reach at its confluence with Bhaga river in the village of Tandi. Tandi is also an important stop on the Manali-Leh Highway since it is at this place where you will find the last petrol pump before Leh. As you leave Tandi, the condition of the road greatly improves and it’s a smooth ride to Keylong.
Keylong - After Manali, Keylong is the next frequented overnight location on the Manali-Leh Highway. Keylong is a preferred option over Manali since it is at a higher altitude than Manali and hence an overnight halt here helps more with the acclimatization. You can visit the famous Kardang Monastery or just have a quiet time on the banks of Bhaga river.
Jispa - Located just 20 kms away from Keylong, Jispa is another small village on the banks of river Bhaga. Boasting of a helipad, a monastery, a small folk museum, very few accommodation options and some totally amazing views, Jispa is another famous option for travellers for an overnight halt. After Rohtang Pass, as the road follows the rivers Chandra & Bhaga, you can actually see a lot of tents pitched along their banks. Needless to say, such a stay will immensely satiate the traveller in you with its picturesque locations.
Darcha - The last and the northernmost village in Himachal Pradesh is Darcha which is also well known for its dhabas. All travellers (foreigners as well as Indians) have to stop at Darcha since it has a police checkpoint. After Darcha, the altitude will start to increase slowly and the lush green landscapes will be steadily replaced with an arid panorama of mountains and a rugged terrain.
Deepak Tal - Just as the terrain turns completely barren, you will suddenly come across this small wonder on the parched land. Deepak Tal is one of the two small lakes that you will encounter on the Manali-Leh Highway. It is just the place to have a quick tea-break, a cuppa in one hand and the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the sparkling waters of the lake beats any sight any day!
Zingzing Bar - As you move ahead, you will pass through Patseo and then stumble upon this uniquely named place. Consisting of a few Dhabas/basic camps, ZingZing Bar is considered to be the base camp for Baralacha Pass. The steep ascent starts from here so keep yourself hydrated and the medication at hand!
Suraj Tal - Just as you are about to reach the Baralacha Pass, you will come across Suraj Tal (Lake of Sun God). Surrounded by towering mountains, this enchanting lake is tucked within the towering mountains and is a soothing beauty waiting to be witnessed.
Baralacha La - At an altitude of 4890 Mtrs, Baralacha Pass is one of the highest passes on the Manali-Leh Highway. Snow-capped peaks, rivers flowing down from the melting snow combined with that thrilling element of high altitude give this place a surreal feeling.
Killing Sarai - Funnily enough, as you approach Sarchu, you will pass through a place called as Killing Sarai (as the signboard suggests) which is nothing but a deserted place. Not sure why the peculiar name but it sure as hell gets one’s attention.
222 kms, two mountain passes, a diametrically opposite landscape and a solid 8-hour drive later we finally reached Sarchu from Manali. Sarchu is a major and perhaps the most feared overnight destination on the Manali-Leh Highway (NH 21). Located on the border between the Indian states of Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, Sarchu has a police check post (you know the drill by now) and a military base as well. Lying almost midway between Manali & Leh, Sarchu offers good tented accommodations as well as eating options. Since it lies at an altitude of 4290 mtrs which is quite high, it is infamous for giving you the dreaded “mountain sickness”. Also known as “The Vomit Hilton”, it will leave you sleepless and drained out with a massive headache, puking and exhaustion (if hit by AMS).
We arrived to a windy Sarchu just as hot evening tea and snacks were being served. By the time we checked in our luggage into our warm tents, it had grown dark and the wind had really picked up forcing us to stay inside our tents. Dinner was a simple fare but the hot meal felt like heaven. As we made our way towards our tents after dinner, we were greeted with a beautiful clear night and a sky that was lit up with countless stars. But unfortunately, the weather started getting rough and once more we were forced to move back into our tents. The long drive had burned us out completely, however, we were yet to have our first brush with the sleepless nights that Sarchu is famous for! AMS combined with the rough cold wind outside that gave us chills even under 7 layers (!) made sure that we couldn’t sleep at a stretch in spite of being dead tired.
Somehow, the night passed and we woke up early to a magnificent morning. The sun was up around 6 a.m. and as we came out of our tents, which were nestled between towering mountains and a deserted patch of land, we were stunned by the view. A solitary highway road with an occasional vehicle amidst the barren landscape and a that sky couldn’t get any more bluer – it was pure bliss for us. After a whirlwind session of exploring the area and clicking hundreds of photographs, we made it to breakfast. By 10 a.m. we were all packed and ready to leave for Tso Moriri.
PLANNING & TIPS
1. If you cannot handle hectic drives, then do not plan Sarchu immediately the next day after reaching Manali. It takes a good part of the day driving over to Sarchu and to avoid the tourist rush at Rohtang you will have to leave early from Manali. Driving from Chandigarh to Manali will already fatigue you out, so keep the next day spare in Manali where you can opt for local sightseeing/paragliding.
2. Alternately, you can entirely skip Manali and opt for an overnight stay at Solang Valley which is at a distance of just 14 kms from Manali. It offers some of the best views of the surrounding glaciers and snow-capped mountains plus a plethora of adventure sport options that includes a perfect track for skiing.
3. As mentioned earlier, Sarchu lies midway between Manali and Leh, so Manali-to-Sarchu and Sarchu-to-Leh takes approximately the same time and the ride gets split equally between two days. If you plan to stay at Keylong and skip Sarchu then be prepared for a brutal and really long ride from Keylong to Leh (commonly known as the Cannonball Run). It will save from AMS but will be a completely exhausting journey.
4. In order to adapt yourself better at the higher altitudes, keep sipping electrolyte (ORS) diluted water after every half an hour. Keep a packet of camphor tablets handy and inhale them intermittently to ward off the effects of AMS. Starting 48 hours prior to embarking on your journey, consume one tablet of Diamox (Acetazolamide) daily (at least up to the day you reach Leh, you can then discontinue it).
5. Last but not the least, the 434 km long Manali-Leh highway is a journey in itself, so enjoy it to the best. We cannot emphasize how exhilarating and bewitching each moment in this ride is! So if you are traveling in your own vehicle, opt for more overnight halts, take plenty of stops and tons of pictures.