Manali-Leh route is very famous and considered as one of the most beautiful and adventurous road trips in the world. While you are on this road, you see spectacular views of the snow capped mountains, green valleys, some of the highest mountain passes in the world, breathtaking off-roading experience and a dreamy shift of landscapes almost every 5 minutes.
The total distance from Manali to Leh is 490 kms. There are two routes available from Manali to reach Lahaul. You can take either as both have their advantages and disadvantages. First is the Rohtang pass road which is the older route and is a beautiful drive in itself. However, you will get a lot of traffic on this route as Rohtang pass is one of the must-see things on the itinerary of the tourists visiting Manali. Also there are many sections of road that are in a very bad condition. Second option is the Atal Tunnel route which is a shorter route(approx 430km) with little to no traffic on the way. However, you will miss the gorgeous scenery due to driving inside the tunnel but the condition of the road is very good. We had chosen to take the Atal tunnel.
Once you cross the Atal Tunnel, the scenery completely changes from green mountains into a sandy terrain. The first village that you come across is Sissu. Ahead of Sissu, you will cross Tandi. Tandi is an important place in the Manali-Leh highway because here you will find the last petrol-pump of this highway. It is advisable that you carry extra jerry-cans for storing extra petrol for this trip. You can get your car/bike tank and jerry-cans filled here. Right after the petrol pump, you will cross the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga river that together become Chenab. The mountains that you see from this point are very unique and beautiful.
After Tandi comes Keylong and then Jispa, which is a preferred location for staying the night, especially if you are coming from the Rohtang route. The road from Sissu to Jispa is very good except for a few stretches where you need to cross water streams flowing across the road.
After Jispa, you will come across the first glacial lake of this trip, called Deepak Tal. The lake is located at an altitude of 12,300 feet above sea level. Like most glacial lakes that I have ever encountered in my life, this one too feels like floating in the air and it magically appears in front of you. The water is turquoise blue and clear, so much so that you can see the base of the lake. If the weather is clear and not windy, you can also see the reflection of all the surrounding peaks on its surface. From Deepak Tal to the next landmark named Zing Zing Bar, there is a small stretch where you will feel like you are driving almost on a river bed. There are stones both big and small and water flows through it.
Tip: Sometimes the flow of the water is very fast and its easier for heavier vehicles with 4×4 to cross with them. If you are not sure, do ensure to wait for couple of other vehicles to come by and try to gauge the flow and depth of the waters. Do not try it alone if you have any doubts.
Zing Zing bar has many dhabas and cafe, if you wish to grab a bite or just have tea. Next, comes the second glacial lake of the roadtrip, called the Suraj Tal. The blue water of the lake surrounded by the snow covered mountains makes you feel that you are driving through a paradise. While the lake is very picturesque, its situated at a high altitude and the road is single lane and hence it is not recommended that you stop you here for a long time. Immediately after Suraj Tal, you will cross Baralacha La.
Tip : Do try Baralacha cafe at Zing Zing Bar, their momos, rajma chawal and specially the masala chai is super delicious.
Baralacha La is the first high pass on the Manali – Leh highway (if you have taken the Atal tunnel route). It is situated at the height of 15000 ft. and is mostly covered in snow throughout the year. The view from the pass is truly breathtaking.
Tip : It is advised that you don’t stop at the pass for too long and quickly descend because of the high altitude which can sometimes lead to AMS symptoms.
After Baralacha comes the famous landmark called ‘Pagal Nala’. As the name suggests its highly unpredictable water stream. Sometimes it gets so deep and high in flow that the cars get stuck and need a rescue.
Just as you approach Sarchu camp, the landscape changes and it almost feels like you are on Mars. (I am not kidding!!). There are so many beautiful spots with amazing view where one might want to stop and take pictures. Sarchu camp(14,000 ft) has an army check-post, right after which there are many dhabas with overnight stay options. It is not advised that you camp on the Sarchu camp overnight if you are not acclimatised. Otherwise you can opt for these overnight stays.
Tip : There are camps as well as semi-permanent structures. I would personally recommend that you opt for the latter. As they are warm and covered, so it saves you from both the wind and the cold. Even in summers the weather here is chilly.
Tip : If you decide to stay the night at Sarchu then make sure that you start really early next morning. As the way ahead is under construction and once the work starts you might have to wait at multiple points for the machines to take a break and traffic to clear.
After Sarchu, for a big stretch there are no roads. You’ll be literally driving on mud. There is actually an interesting phenomenon that appears in this area on a windy day which is called dust devil. They are small and harmless, but a treat to watch. From Sarchu to the onset of Gata Loops, you will be driving along side the Tsarap river and the views are just too beautiful.
Gata Loops are 21 hair pin bends spread across a 10 km stretch. Roads are good however but can be overwhelming for a un-seasoned driver. Hence, drive slow and take a break when necessary. These loops lead you to the third high pass of the entire trip called, the Nakeela Pass(15,647ft). From Nakeela pass to Pang, the drive gets more and more interesting as you will see these monoliths kinda structure in the mountains. It makes you wonder, if you have been transported to Mars. If you have time, do stop here and try to imagine what is that the structure in front of you looks like. I have actually seen people spotting a face of King Kong too. Its fun really.. give it a short.
You can stop at Pang for a quick tea and maggi. There are various dhabas in the area. From Pang, the next beautiful stretch starts for the More plains. It is a plateau situated on the height of 4800 m. Its a straight and gorgeous road of about 40kms and is a real treat for the eyes.
After More Plains, the road gradually elevates to welcome you to the Tanglang La(17,600ft), the last high pass on this route. The view from the top is breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see a 360 degree view consisting of snow capped peaks, glaciers and valleys. While descending from Tanglang La, you may find some ice on the road where you must drive slow and carefully.
Next on the route comes Rhumtse, from here the landscape and the scenery completely changes. Its like an official welcome to Ladakh. The mountains along the highway seem as if they are out of a painting. There are pink, green, purple etc in colors, possibly due to the high concentration of certain minerals. Its just wonderful. From here on, you reach Upshi – a small village located at the bank of Indus River. From Upshi, the roads are wide and smooth and hence the leg of 45 kms can be covered in less than an hour to reach the final destination, Leh.
Leh is like the gateway to Ladakh and you can explore many places like Pangong, Nubra, Hanle etc before you embark on to any of these destinations, spend at least 2 nights in Leh and get acclimatised to the altitude.
I hope you will find this guide helpful in planning your own Manali – Leh road-trip. If you have any questions, Don’t forget to leave it in the comments section below. I will try to address them the best to my ability.
The Seeking Soul