We embarked on an overland journey across the Himalayas to reach Leh. The tough journey, taking two days, passed through spectacular landscape, high mountain passes, awesome valleys and deep gorges
The mighty Himalayas, considered insurmountable at one point in time, run east-west along the northern boundary of India. The cold and arid region of Ladakh which lies beyond the Himalayas is sandwiched between the high mountains and borders of China and Pakistan. This isolation has given a unique culture to the region, though it is predominantly influenced by the migrants from the neighbouring Tibetan region.
The mysterious charm of Ladakh has fascinated travellers since time immemorial. Direct flights have recently been introduced between Delhi and Leh, but travelling by the classic overland route is a thrilling experience in itself. There are two land routes to Leh (the capital of the Laddakh region) - one from Manali (a town in the state of Himachal Pradesh) passing through Keylong and the other from Srinagar (a town in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) passing through Kargil. Both of these routes are open for vehicular traffic normally between July and October, though it may open a bit earlier and close later depending on the prevailing climatic conditions. The distance covered over both routes is almost the same (around 470kms) and the journey is spread over two days with an overnight stop in tents. The journey is long and tough, but the spectacular landscape leaves you admiring and appreciating the natural beauty all along the way.
Out of the two routes, the Manali-Leh journey is more scenic and is best done with the Government agency HPTDC (www.hptdc.nic.in) as it is considered safe and reliable. The pricing is around 50 USD per person which is reasonable as it includes the overnight accommodation and food charges. The bus leaves Manali at 11:00am and reaches Leh next day at around 7pm. Passengers are advised to munch on chocolates and have plenty of water, as the journey involves crossing numerous high mountain passes (many of them more than 5,000 metres high). One can see an element of fear on everyone’s face, but the excitement and adventure is enough to keep you going. Foreign nationals outnumber the Indians on this bus by a wide margin, which is a bit surprising as the travel is in the Indian territory. Our companions were of diverse nationalities but lots of them were from other Asian countries, like Korea, Japan and China.
The bus started in perfect climatic conditions and travelling alongside the Beas River we crossed the sleepy village of Kothi and the beautiful Solang Valley. The scenery changed from tall coniferous forests to lush green pastures as we started our ascent to the first of the numerous mountain passes, the Rohtang Pass (3,900 metres). Rohtang means “pile of dead bodies” and is often referred to as the gateway to the mountainous region of Lahaul and Spiti. Rohtang is considered as one of the most dangerous passes in the region as tourists often get stranded here due to sudden deterioration in climatic conditions. The bus halted at Rohtang for a short break. We stretched ourselves and went to a small dhaba (road side restaurant) for lunch and also had nice hot tea to refresh ourselves.
With everyone back in the bus, we now started the descent from Rohtang Pass to reach the first village of Lahaul and Spiti region, named as Koksar. The bus halted here for a while as it was a police check post and the travel documents of all the passengers were collected and verified. Moving along the valley slopes, surrounded on both sides by towering peaks and glaciers, we passed the villages of Sissu and Gondla before reaching the confluence of the Chandrabhaga River at Tandi. Crossing the bridge, and after travelling for a while, we reached the beautiful town of Keylong (3,350 metres) which is the headquarters of the Lahaul and Spiti district of the state of Himachal Pradesh.
The bus took us straight to Hotel ChandraBhaga, where arrangements were made for an overnight halt. Dinner was served while accommodation was arranged in a tent outside the hotel premises. Two single beds along with warm blankets and a mosquito repellant coil was provided in the tent. Passengers were instructed by get up in time and be in the bus by 4am the next morning. It was wonderful to spend the cold night in a tent with thundering waterfall close by and towering snow clad mountain peaks on all sides. We slept for a while and woke up at 3:30am, freshened up and got back to the bus, which started on time. Our packed breakfast comprised of boiled egg and buttered toast and was served in the bus.
Moving along a desolate road, we encountered another mountain pass, Barcha La, which is often referred to as the “Twelve Horned” pass and forms the junction of three spectacular river valleys. Overcoming the Barcha La we started our descent and reached the town of Sarchu, where the bus halted briefly for refreshments at one of the numerous small dhabas lined along the roadside. We again started our ascent from Sarchu and reached Lachlang La (5,059 metres) and passed through barren landscape and rugged terrain to reach the village Pang. Beyond Pang there is an incredible plateau (Moray Plain - 4,800 metres), which extends for 45kms and is encircled by rolling hills and snowy mountain peaks.
Crossing the plateau, we started our ascent to the last mountain pass, Tanglang La, which incidentally was also the highest at a height of 5,328 metres and is also the second highest pass in the world (highest being the Khardung La at around 6000 metres on the Leh-Nubra valley route). It was an overwhelming feeling when we reached Tanglang La; it was snowing there and the bus stopped for a while to allow us to take some pictures of the majestic pass. All of us were shivering and many of us experienced dizziness and breathlessness, which is a symptom of high altitude sickness. After a brief halt, we descended for a while to reach the small town of Upshi, which is the gateway to Leh. There was a brief halt at Upshi for some refreshment and beyond this it was a relatively smooth 50 Km ride to Leh along the Indus River Valley.
We could see a large number of Buddhist monasteries, gompas, stupas and prayer wheels as we approached Leh. Finally at around 7:00pm we reached the main bus stand of Leh. We were quite worn out, yet thrilled and excited and happy to see the hotel staff waiting for us. We drove straight to the hotel, had a warm bath and refreshing tea to soothe and relax our body and soul.
Where to stay
Splurge: The Grand Dragon Ladakh, USD 100-150.
The Grand Dragon Ladakh is an eco-friendly hotel that blends traditional architecture and luxurious accommodation to create a unique experience for tourists visiting Leh. Solar panels are employed for heating the water for central heating and for the bathrooms. All windows are double glazed and hotel rooms are well insulated to conserve energy to provide a comfortable stay for the guests even during the winters.
Address: Old Road Sheynam, Leh, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India
Mid Range: Hotel Shambhala, Leh , USD 70-100
Hotel Shambhala has been rated as one of the best hotels in Leh by many travel magazines, such as Frommers India and Outlook Traveller. This mid-range hotel provides a comfortable stay for visitors and the attached restaurant serves hot and delicious multi-cuisine food.
Budget: Hotel Panorma, Leh, USD 30-50
Hotel Panorma is eco-friendly and makes extensive use of solar panels. The rooms are simple yet comfortable and connected to the central heating system.