Romance of the Manali-Leh Road

MBA days were long gone and work pangs had started hitting me. Word was in the air that there was a road in the mountains higher than the peaks of Europe. ‘Plans’ were made with friends; but I was destined to be on this magical road trip of self discovery alone. I reached Delhi airport, not yet revealing at home that I was all by myself. I hopped on to the pre-booked HPTDC Volvo to Manali aloof of any first time solo travel jitters! Solo travel for somebody, who got scared of the demons when he slept alone. What was I thinking?!

My heart was rife with excitement & my first brush with serendipity happened when a pretty South African female was seated next to me. Her hazel eyes spoke & lips showered poetry when she asked me must-dos in India. Dinner time was hilarious with me teaching her the Indian way of eating; sans fork – over beer.

Read : Ten foodie delights of Manali

On the Delhi to Manali bus journey, I woke up to pretty mountain views with snow fed waters of the meandering Beas river hugging the road all along. Cheap backpacker accommodation was quickly found in hippie Vashisht; where an intoxicating smell of charas and songs dedicated to Lord Shiva dominated the hazy proceedings.

Rohtang Pass Road
Road scenes near Rohtang Pass.

‘A thousand mile journey begins with the first step.’ I had come a long way solo and the universe wasn’t going to disappoint me. Off i went (an introvert) wandering on the streets of Manali trying to find fellow travellers. Luck was on my side and now we were 5 travellers; including 2 excited couples to accompany me on this epic journey! A white number plated scorpio (SUV) was called from Chandigarh as the yellow one (taxi) might have trouble with sightseeing with regards to Leh Taxi Union.

The rain gods waved us off with a slight drizzle as a good omen for our journey. Rohtang Jot came and went with lush greenery on both sides of the freshly metalled road but it was the other side I was curious about.

When I was small I used to think the road ends at Rohtang, now that I have grown wiser; I realise that it just begins.’

Manali Leh Highway.
Into the realm of the mountains…

Read Top Solo Travel Tips for a First Time Traveller

While descending from Rohtang, a little trailer of the road ahead (or whatever was left of it) revealed itself to us as our empty stomachs churned with a mixture of fright and delight. The dhaba hamlet of Khoksar was our stop (only choice) for breakfast/lunch. This road practised equality, and how! A solo adventurer in his swanky Toyota Landcruiser Prado ate food at that meagre place and was overjoyed with the simplicity that only a free life brings.

We had descended to reach Lahaul; fuel was refilled at Tandi which remains the last petrol pump before Leh. The ‘old lady of Keylong’ towered above us but we had decided that a break at Jispa (3300m) would be better for the longer run to Leh the next day. AMS(Altitude Mountain Sickness) & my interpretation of it played a big part in not going further to Sarchu (aka. the vomit hilton) at 4200m.

Colourful prayer flags fluttered and also perhaps set my soul free in the process.

Frugal accommodation was arranged in the mountaineering Institute. Jispa turned out to be a fairytale town with the Bhaga river right beside it. The SUV was driven on the banks for a wash and much fun ensued (holi without colours) with the icy cold waters being splashed around when the cute village kids decided to join in. Evening was surreal with dusk bringing a beautiful sunset. A surprise bonfire was arranged in the night with millions of stars I did not know even existed, while we made dinner at a nearby dhaba.

Jispa
Sitting by the stream in Jispa, I learnt about life.

The adrenaline had well & truly started pumping as we left sleepy-eyed at 4 am next morning. The weather was dull and gloomy complimenting the stark, barren landscapes. The semi-frozen greenish waters of the Surajtaal lake just before Baralacha La woke us up from our reverie as I gasped at how pristine it looked! The pitter-patter of raindrops had turned into gentle snowflakes, a first for me and in the process making Baralacha La(4850m) my favourite pass. A cluster of colourful dhabas at Bharatpur appeared in the far distance as the valley opened up. Here I had my first tryst with Maggi as a way of life in the high Himalaya.

Read Practical Tips for Winter Travel in Ladakh

Baralacha La Road
Baralacha La in July; Lahaul, Zanskar, Spiti & Ladakh are accessible from this vantage pass.

We set off again into absolute wilderness with scenes resembling the wild wild west. The landscapes changed with every turn and the plethora of colours could be scarcely believed! Sarchu came and went in a flash with just the tents and no permanent settlement to speak of. We were leaving the state of Himachal Pradesh behind and entered Jammu & Kashmir.

Unbelievable wind swept erosion formations just after Sarchu; we dared not even blink our eyes for fear of missing something. The road starts snaking up to the spectacular Nakeela (4900m) with 21 hairpin bends famously called the ‘Gata Loops’ in total merry go round style!

Ladakh road
And all the roads we have to walk are winding!

The sun gods had finally decided that it was time for us to be exposed to the azure blue skies that Ladakh has since become famous for. Just when we thought the road could not go any higher, Lachung La (5025m) decided to surprise us with sharp edged mountains. The views of the other side from top of the pass were surreal & majestic. Everything appeared so tiny.

In the frenzy of clicking pictures, everybody had made the fatal mistake of exhausting their camera batteries! A persistent headache had me asking for chai and we duly made a stop at Pang (a place bang in the middle of nowhere).

Ladakh colours.
I still can’t believe this scene is real!

The road meandered along and we were at Morey Plains (4800m). A flat stretch of land without roads, smooth round topped mountains and Tibetan wild asses grazing (visualise that :P). An impromptu race began with 4-5 SUVs and we all loved the awesome off-roading experience. The Morey plains led us to the second highest pass in the world – Taglang La(5350m). It was the highest high and the funny part came when our driver said ‘I can’t breathe!’ A puff with my asthma inhaler helped.

We descended quickly as the road tumbles downward to the first village in 250 Kms, Rumtse. The landscapes had completely changed and were now interspersed with green & yellow fields, dotted with cute looking chortens. 

Ladakh landscape
Buddhist chortens adorn the landscape among lush green fields.

Read A Photo Essay from Ladakh

Sanity was restored as the road descended and reached Upshi (3400m). We were all hungry enough to wolf down enormous quantities of food, and it really tasted divine. The land of the lamas charmed us with wide and relatively straight roads as we were ushered into enigmatic Leh. I was secretly hoping for a special welcome & acquiesced ‘To get to heaven; you must pass through hell’. The 475 kilometre Manali – Leh Highway had surely not disappointed us.

Buddhist monks in maroon robes muttered ‘om mani padme hum’ with handheld prayer wheels.

A certain sense of deja vu was felt. Maybe I did not want the road to ever end!

I was about to realise the true essence of being smitten by wanderlust and the uncluttered & unconditional joy a nomadic existence gave me. These mountains loved me back!

The transformation of the scared boy was complete. I had arrived in Leh. Jullay!

Manali Leh Road Highway
A blue that took our blues away!

Ancient Ladakhi Saying

The land is so barren and the passes so high

that only our fiercest enemies or best friends would want to visit us.

Read : 7 roadtrips for adventure junkies in India

For more travel stories, anecdotes and experiences connect with me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

69 Comments Add yours

  1. Ishita says:

    You write like a magazine editor. This post is apt to be the cover story of a travel magazine. Keep the good work up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehehe, you are too kind Ishita 🙂

      Like

  2. mohit dada says:

    A nice read as usual. 🙂 I always wait for your blogs to publish…wonder blogger you are.. you have inspired me in a great way.Travelling had always been my passion, but for the past sometime I almost lost the intensity, being occupied professionally…thank you for rekindling my interest…

    Like

    1. Woohoo, Thanks brother! That comment made my day.

      Like

    1. Thank you, Stuti. 🙂

      Like

  3. kuldeep says:

    awesome write up.. way to go.. keep it up.. #travel #gofootloos

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey! Thank you Kuldeep 🙂

      Like

  4. Your post just helped me make up my mind for my next travel trip! Beautifully written!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you did that. Thank you.

      Like

  5. Wow!! These pictures are simply suberb! Loved each and every one. The write up made to virtually travel. Great job, must say!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lalalla, thank you Parul. *Wide smile*

      Liked by 1 person

  6. param says:

    Such an exciting trip, equally well narrated. Look forward to more such trips.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, thank you! I will keep writing straight from the heart 🙂

      Like

  7. Memories of six years past! :-O Time to make fresh ones again. 🙂 Spectacular photos, Shubham.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe, thank you Ankita! Memories are all that we live by, so yes. 🙂

      Like

  8. magiceye says:

    Gorgeous captures and wonderful narration!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kan says:

    Absolutely gorgeous pics… its been on my bucket list for a while… enjoyed the virtual visit through your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kan. So kind of you to say that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. nupurpradhan says:

    Stunning pictures! I miss Vashist. Had been there ages ago. Your post has inspired a revisit 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nupur for the candid review. You must re-visit and tell us stories!

      Like

      1. nupurpradhan says:

        Yes! I will do that 🙂

        Like

  11. Simply amazing and poetic! You transported me to the magical lands through your writings! Love it. 🙂

    PS Did I mention how much I loved your photos?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww, thank you Michelle! I’m so happy with such cool words. Woohoo

      Like

  12. Sunil says:

    Those are awesome photographs. And your writing is crisp & clear. Next time don’t forget to contact me before you make any plan. Otherwise…. 😀

    Like

    1. Thank you bhaiji! Make any plan in the winters 😀

      Like

  13. Natasha says:

    These are amazing shots and I love the way you write too, it paints such a beautiful picture of the place. This is somwhere I’ve always wanted to visit too. Lovely post! – Tasha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You must come to India soon then! Thank you!! My recent posts have been missing your encouragement 🙂

      Like

  14. The Guy says:

    I think I’m forming a romance too. It looks truly wonderful, breath taking in fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe, I’m so glad. Words of praise 😀

      Like

  15. Elita says:

    Neat, damn neat …you bring out both sides of solo travel 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey hey Elita! Thank you thank you

      Like

  16. This blog post has got me running up to my “Top 10 things to do before I die” list and adding “Visiting Leh” at 2nd position. Keep blogging, and the remaining eight will fill in magically!
    #AwesomePost #KeepItUp 👌👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehhe, thank you Mithila! You must set off for the mountains soon 😀

      Like

  17. Amazing stuff man. You are a good story teller. This road travel from Manali to Leh has been on my list for quite some time now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Havneet sirjee. Its high time we met. Kuch plan banao?

      Like

  18. A combination of flowing poetic writing style and excellent photography skills is very uncommon. Very well written and photographed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woohoo! Thank you. My recent posts have been missing your encouragement. 😛

      Like

  19. hackernewbie says:

    Beautiful photos, made me nostalgic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You must visit again to make fresh memories 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Madhura says:

    Oh my godd!! Why did I not stumble across your blog before? Beautiful photos, and I’m now dying to go there! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hhehehe, thanks M. Woohoo! *Does a little dance*

      Liked by 1 person

  21. such beautiful pictures! an absolutely stunning journey. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Divsi ji 😛 yayayyayya

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Beautiful scenery! It sounds like you had an amazing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks, Katie. I sure did!!

      Like

  23. Madhu says:

    What an breathtaking landscape Shubham! Your stunning photos do it full justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woah! So pleased, thanks for the generous praise, Madhu ji 🙂

      Like

  24. pc73 says:

    When I was small I used to think the road ends at Rohtang, now that I have grown wiser; I realise that it just begins.’ So true!! Such beautiful pictures 🙂

    Like

    1. Just like the words came to my mind. Thanks Pooja for checking it out.

      Like

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