A journey along the Manali Leh highway has to be one of the most visually stunning journeys in the world. Add to it, the bad roads, the rarefied mountain passes, the hair pin bends interspersed with the bone chillingly cold streams of water on the the broken, potholed or non existent roads and you find yourself having one of the greatest adventures ever experienced. The highway passing through some of the highest mountain roads and most inhospitable environments presents to you a range of views from alpine forests to snow capped peaks to narrow canyons to dusty plateaus to fertile valley along the Indus river. No wonder that you are left breathless both figuratively and literally!
The journey begins in Manali as heads north on the road up along the Beas river before the ascent to Rohtang La. For most part of the ascent the roads though bad are manageable since it opens up views of pine trees that populate the mountain along with a few water falls here and there. And across the valley one can view snow capped peaks of the foothills of Himalayas. But as one crosses Marhi, a small settlement of restaurants and dhabas, 20 kms short of Rohtang La the clouds and the fog decide to pay a dampener to your excited spirits. Along with this the roads now are nothing more than 2-4 inches of slush and mud with visibility, due to the fog, being reduced to less than a couple of meters. The road, each and every inch of it, demand your unwavering attention. Rohtang La, 52 kms from Manali is pretty close for all the tourists to make a day’s trip and enjoy adventure activities like skiing, paragliding and hence the traffic jams here are pretty frequent. Some of these jams, at times, take up to a day to clear. You will have your first taste of challenges coming up ahead a few kilometers before and after Rohtang.
However as you descent from the northern end of Rohtang into the Lahaul valley, crowds will be left behind but bad roads will prevail. Gone are the pine forests and the vegetation but grey mountains with snow capped peaks are not. And the river will be alongside you once again, this time it will be called Chandra. That is until just before the little town of Tandi, where it meets the the river Bhaga and gets its new name ChandraBhaga and then again gets renamed as Chenab as it runs northwest-ward. Keylong, at a distance of 110 kms from Manali, the district headquarters of Lahaul region, is a good place to call it a day.
The landscape continues to stay as was after the descent from Rohtang until the town of Darcha which is a the last permanent settlement before you cross over in the state of Jammu and Kashmir at the Sarchu. The road starts climbing up once again starting from Darcha and the gushing stream crossings across the roads will be numerous. Sections of roads will be completely washed away by the constant flow of the melting ice from the top of the mountains. Managing to get your vehicle across the streams will be a challenge that will leave you breathless on its own. At the same time the rarefied air is also accentuating your troubles. Somewhere here will you first encounter the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness. And hence, it is advisable that one takes it slow and steady and enjoys the views that will soon take another form all together.
As you climb up the Baralacha La, at close to 16500 ft asl, walls of snow will rise up on either sides of the road completely blow your minds away. But before that you will witness two small lakes the called Deepak Tal and Suraj Tal enroute , at times however they may be totally frozen. The descent from Baralacha La will bring another change in the landscape. The dull grey over cast skies before Baralacha la will now give way bright sunny ones. The mountains will continue to have some snow at the peaks but will be in a fantastic shades earth and at times specks of red here and there.
As one descents into the plains of Sarchu the roads are tarred and straight. The Tsarap river cuts through the plains forming a wide and deep canyon. Close to the end of the plains is the temporary settlement of Sarchu, the first settlement on this side of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Numerous dhabas will have sprung up providing basic accommodation and food at a height of 14000 ft asl. One would have covered close to 220 kms by now and despite the early reservations about journey at Rohtang, you will be craving for more.
As one continues further ahead on the road to Leh, you encounter another mountain pass. But not before you rise to the challenge of Gata Loops – A series of 21 hair pin bends that takes you up another 1000 ft above Sarchu before culminating at the Nakee La at 15500 ft asl. The descent from Nakee La, however, is a short one as the road climbs up once again to take you another 1000 ft above to Lachulung La at an altitude just above 16000 ft ASL.
However, as the road descends down the pass a change of scenary is again in order. The road lies in the middle of a canyon with shapes of mountain resembling ant hills and the stream flowing parallell to the road on its left. Eventually it leads to Pang another settlement similar to Sarchu at an height of 14000 ft asl.
The road out of Pang climbs once again and leads to the More plains. A 40 km long and 20 km wide plateau nested among small hills. It is place to just sit and marvel at, to get overwhelmed by the journey till here and the wonders that one has been through, and at the same time feel humbled in their presence.
At the end of More plain the road again starts winding up to lead you to Tanglang La at a height of 17000+ft asl. This is the highest pass on the Manali Leh highway. From the top you can watch just left behind More Plains and on the other side as you descent the Indus Valley.
As one descends from Tanglang La, all of you sudden you start feeling energetic and enthusiastic. Rumtse will be the first village one encounters and it will be the first permanent settlement that you see after Darcha. And after Rumtse the highway is interspersed with little villages with farms of wheat, pine trees along the roads and the like. The kids will be shouting out waving their hands or holding them out for a Hi-five. And you feel that the fives are richly deserved after this challenging journey that you had. And you deserve the black top roads as well with the Indus roaring alongside challenging you to beat it on speed as well as its roar. But you do not care about rising up to the challenge, because you know that over the last few days you have been conquered by both the beauty of this region as well as its might. You just close your eyes and let the wind ruffle your hair, wondering what’s in store for you further ahead in this land of high mountain passes – Ladakh!