The Manali-Leh Highway (more of a road) is one of the most dangerous yet beautiful roads one will ever travel. I have had the humbling pleasure of traveling this road multiple times when traveling in the NW Himalaya in India. Leh is the northern end of the road in Jammu and Kashmir, while Manali is the southern end of the road in Himachel Pradesh. One awesome thing about it is you experience so many different environments as you travel from one end to the other. With a length of approximately 300 miles, this road will fill your camera with memories and sights you should cherish forever.
Manali is a lush city in the heart of the Kullu Valley. It is a prominent stop for those traveling to the northern extents of the Indian Himalaya. Here you can find pretty much all you need for a journey, driver, supplies, food… anything. The sites are awesome as well, of course it depends on the time of year. The Kullu Valley is in the orographic front (rainy side) of the regional mountain range. This in turn leads to a great accumulation of clouds at 6000 feet up. When the sun does peer its bright head through, take notice and snap pictures. Manali also sits on the west side of the Beas River. Its drainage basin is a respectable 7800 square miles. If you’re on your way to Leh, don’t pass this place up.
Leh is the capital of the previous empire of Ladakh, currently incorporated in the province of Jammu and Kashmir. As stated before it sits at about 3500m elevation. This area is arid, very arid. Luckily there is greenery nestled throughout the city. Very little rain falls here but that doesn’t mean the occasional catastrophic flood doesn’t occur. There was a terrible one in 2010. So be careful in the summer months. The Indus River flows south of the city, entering into Pakistan, finally dumping its waters in the Indus River Basin and the Indian ocean.
Some could say that it is the tourist capital of northern Indian. There is so much trekking opportunities here that that title is indeed fitting. Unless you stay away from the main roads of Leh you will be exposed to the tourism ecosystem that is thriving there. There is nothing you should want for in Leh, there is internet, hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, trekking companies, personal drivers and more. If you are looking to be adventurous you should try to procure the help of a someone who is not from Leh but speaks very good English for your sake. Enlist them as a guide and they will be a tremendous help.
So back to the Manali-Leh Highway (MLH) Manali to Rohtang
I will start summarize some of the best things to look out for on the Manali-Leh road from and south to north trajectory. Leaving Manali, you will begin to ascend to Rohtang Pass. which is roughly 4000m (13,000&prime). This is why I cautioned the slow ascent. Dabas and little villages will be passes all along the way. One thing you have to worry about is stoppage due to traffic or a rock fall blockage (happens often), so if you’re headed this way leave early. Before reaching Rohtang pass there is a small stop called Marhi, from there is an trail that leads west to a Dashaur lake, a popular resting stop for many trekkers and caravans traveling the MLH. Once you make it to Rohtang pass, you will look upon the Chandra River valley. Take time to stop and acclimate, you are about to descend into the valley.
Riding along the Chandra River
Fairly, quickly you will be crossing the Chandra River to its north side and heading NW towards Sissu, and Tandi. These are very small villages with dabas and homestays present. The best thing to do here is look south to the south Chandra Valley wall. Glaciers, spectacular geologic folds and more can be observed. At Tandi is the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers. Along the south flowing Bhaga is where the MLH continues northward to Keylong. Keylong is an important city as it serves as the biggest stop between Manali and Leh. Refueling, restocking rations and exchanging money are all essential tasks that can be cone in Keylong.
All around this area are trails that connect inter-mountain villages via the tributaries of the Bhaga. There is an abundance of trekking opportunities outside the main touristy ones. Jispa and Darcha are north of Keylong and are small but culturally interesting. take a stop and see one of the many Himachel men with their unique attire, and fashionable hats.
Ascent to Baralacha La (pass)
From Darcha you will ascend continuously up to Baralacha La which is roughly 5000m. Additionally, there are lakes that you will pass that are fed from glacial run off from regional peaks. Again, you should take caution up to this pass and take stops if needed since it is so high up. Side not before you reach the pass you will pass Zingzingbar. This is a small camp charged with the duty of keeping Baralacha roads well maintained. If you get a chance stop by.
Down from Baralacha La you well descend towards Sarchu, another important rest stop nestled near the confluence of the Yunam River and the Tsarap Chu River. It is the border town of Himachel Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. If you’re lucky enough to arrive here in the day time, you will see beautiful geologic folds to the north west across the Yunam. Take time to take in Sarchu before heading back up slope towards Lachalung La.
Lachalung La is the third pass since Manali, and it is approximately as high as Baralacha La. The same cautions apply here as others, take your time. I’ve seen bikers take this route and they almost always have to rest to acclimate properly. From here, things begin to really change environmentally as you enter into a more arid area. Most of the moisture you will see here comes from snow, and glacial run off. The descent from Lachalung La is pretty steady all the way down to Pang, and back up to Pang La (4800m), north from here you enter further into Jammu and Kashmir, an arid beauty.
Tso Morari and Tso Kar
This stretch of the MLH is scenic and also has trekking opportunities all around, because to the east lies the popular Tso Morari and Tso Kar lakes. Two uniquely beautiful lakes surrounded by various geologic rock types. Northward is Tanglang La which is touted as the worlds second highest motorable pass. It is a humbling 5,328 m. Ascending to this pass should be done slowly and with caution as cloud cover, switch backs and glacial run off will be common. Upon reaching the pass you will see a rest stop with prayer flags (most passes have prayer flags).
Prayer flags are needed
Downward you will have switch backs and may even see transport trucks that have fallen down the slope of the mountain. This is a very dangerous stretch of road. From there you will descend into what is known as the Indus Suture zone. This diffuse region marks the boundary of where the Indian continent collided with the Asian continent approximately 50 million years ago. Here you will see rock layers rotated by tectonics into vertical columns and occasional goats hehe. Its simply beautiful. Miru and cross a short cross over the Indus river to Upshi, will send you on the home stretch to Leh. Here you will see rocks of the Ladakh Batholith to the north and the rocks of the Indus suture zone to the south. From here you follow the Indus river NW towards Leh.