SEASON: JUNE THROUGH SEPTEMBER
This spectacular road through the highest mountains in the world is open for only 3 or 4 months in the year – from mid June through September – crossing the Pir Panjal, the Greater Himalaya and the Zanskar ranges, it reaches a maximum elevation of 5304m. Calling this a road, maybe conferring more than it’s due, that it is a drivable route: a grand testament of human endeavor is the truth. The 476 km journey over four high passes and some of the most awe inspiring terrain in the world starts from Manali, along the green valley of the Beas river, up the steep switchbacks of the Rohtang Pass at 3978m. The Rohtang forms the divide between the verdant Kullu valley and the stark expanse of rock and glacier, in the rain shadow of the Pir Panjal range.
From Rohtang, the road descends to the Chandra River and follows it to Tandi where the Chandra meets the Bhaga River, little villages with groves of poplar, willow, and potato fields irrigated by glacial streams dot the landscape. The road continues past Keylong (district headquarters of Lahaul) and the last town till Leh, 360 kms beyond. Following the Bhaga River through Darcha and past the pastures of Zingzingbar, starts the ascent to the Baralacha Pass (4892m). “The Pass with the crossroads on its summit” – this grand pass straddles the meeting point of gigantic ranges, offering passage down four different routes, along the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers and into Ladakh and Spiti.
A rough stretch of road descends to the pastures of Sarchu 107 kms from Keylong. Now begin the wide-open spaces, dotted with the amazing textures and colours of craggy mountain faces, the gash of the Tsarap river, with it’s mud sculpted sides. The awesome world of nature’s timelessness dwarfing Man.
Once across the Tsarap river starts the grueling ascent to LachulangLa Pass (5059m), 54 kms from Sarchu. The amazing shapes and colours as you reach the top compensate the hard drive, descend along a little stream to Pang. Beyond Pang, the road crosses the Sumskyal, a deep gash marking the edge of the great Kyangshuthang plains – a massive plateau at an altitude of 4500m. Across the vast expanses of this plain are chances to see the Kyang (Tibetan wild ass), the Nabu (Blue Sheep), lots of marmot, as well as the Pashmina sheep of the Shepherds of Rupshu.
We take an interesting diversion at this point, short of the Tanglangla Pass – at 5325m, the highest point on the highway. 136 kms short of Leh a dirt road east leads to the Tso Kar Lake. We camp at this lake and see the breeding Brahmini ducks, Grebes and Black necked cranes. From Tso Kar we take a little used dirt road past hot springs and meadows where yak herders and goat herds have their summer pastures and taking a circuit north meet the highway in the Indus valley, and onto Leh and the comforts of hotels and hot baths.
(Along the regular route, once across the plain, at Dibring, the road starts climbing across the snowy reaches of the Tanglangla and descends into more inhabited Ladakh, meeting the Indus river at Upshi. Passing the Monastries of Hemis, Thikse and Shey, The road reaches the Bazaar of Leh.)
Leh is located in the Indus river valley at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Kashgar, Tibet, and Kashmir. Its importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. Since the 1999 war with Pakistan, and the consequent development of the Manali-Leh highway, it has become a bustling tourist town, the sights to visit are the Palace and the monasteries, and a wander through the bazaar is essential.
We can do two trips out of Leh: to the Nubra Valley and the Pangong tso lake.
For Nubra we cross the highest motorable pass at Khardungla (elevation 5359 m or 17,582 feet). Khardong La is historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels can still be seen at Hundar, in the area north of the pass. It is an area that has only recently opened to the world. Still only about 45 kms of the valley are accessible. It is a tiny bit of paradise, orchards and wild flowers, the bactrian camels, wide meandering river. A discovery, leading to the highest battleground of the world – the Siachin glacier.
Pangong tso lake: situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to Tibet. Pangong Tso can be reached in a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The road traverses the Changla pass, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. The lake is spectacular, we spend the night in a camp on the banks, you get to see breeding Bar-headed geese and Brahmini ducks. If you are lucky enough to be there on a moonlit night and brave enough to weather the cold, there is magic there too, as there is all over these mountains.