As the name suggests, the Leh Manali highway starts from Leh and goes upto Manali. Since we took a detour to go to Tso Moriri from Leh, we caught up with the highway somewhere in the middle. The roads from Tso Moriri to the Leh-Manali Highway cannot be really called roads. That was one of the worst patches of roads we encountered throughout our journey. There are no popular destinations between Leh and Manali and people who drive down usually take up a shelter in home-stays/lodges on the way in Pang, Sarchu or Jispa.
Our Leh-Manali highway drive was one of the most adventurous drives in our journey. The road from Leh to Pang is very well built and maintained and it does not feel like you are driving in the mountains at all. The views around are beyond imagination and driving on this patch of road explains why it is called the Biker’s paradise. However, once you cross Pang, the highway cannot really be called a highway. In fact, we checked on Google Maps at least 5 times to confirm that we are on the highway and have not taken a detour by mistake.
Driving for close to 7 hours, we finally we reached Sarchu at almost 5 PM in the evening. We could not find decent accommodation in Sarchu and hence thought of driving a little ahead to the town of Jispa which was another 85 kms. What we did not realise was what lies ahead was one of the most difficult parts of our journey. We were about to cross the Baralacha Pass, a pass which is 4900 mt above sea level and one of the most steep passes known.
A local told us that if we cross the pass before sun down, we are good to go and will reach Jispa in time. Sadly, the roads were not very favourable. We had expected to cross Baralacha La by 6 PM, but it was already 6:15 PM and we were still 10 kms before Baralacha. The temperature outside was reducing every passing minute due to sun down and the altitude we were gaining. There was a point of time when I saw -8 C on my car dashboard. Not too far from the car, we saw two shiny small balls which turned out to be foxes. A road trip across the mountains was turning into a tour across the wildlife sanctuary when we finally saw a snow bear in the wild.
The only thing on our mind at that time was to cross the pass without our car breaking down. A flat tire, discharged battery, black ice on road or anything similar could have got us in trouble. I wish we had some pictures capturing those moments, but getting ourselves out of that situation was the only thing on our minds at that time.
Darcha is a small village a few kilometres before Jispa. It was almost after two hours we saw some settlement and we felt that it is safest to call it a night here and not go any further. The adventurous day ended with us sleeping off in a local homestay, literally by knocking on someone’s door to provide us with shelter for the night.
1. Make sure that you cross the Baralacha La in absolute day light. It is one of the toughest roads to drive on in India.
2. When on Leh Manali highway, do not wait to get a better accommodation at the next pitstop. If you are tired, just stay wherever you can find a shelter for yourself.
3. Even though the roads are bad, the surroundings are quite picturesque. Stop and click on as many spots are you want. You will not find such beautiful mountains anywhere else in India or abroad.
When you have driven through Baralacha La, everything else seems doable in a blink of an eye. Darcha to Manali was close to a 5 hour drive crossing one of the most famous passes of Himachal Pradesh, the Rohtang Pass. Earlier we had planned to visit Spiti Valley as well, but due to inclement weather conditions, the roads to Spiti were closed. It had snowed heavily just a week ago and the Indian army had to airlift close to 400 people from Spiti valley just a couple of days ago. Hence, we thought it’s best to skip it and leave Spiti for some other time.
The drive through Rohtang Pass was again quite difficult but a beautiful drive. BRO had just cleared the snow from the roads and we could see 6 ft high snow piled up on both sides of the road. The milestone marked ‘Rohtang Pass’ was buried in snow itself.
Rohtang Pass to Manali is a 2 hour drive but full of small waterfalls and wildlife. You can see the city of Manali from the top just 30 minutes after you cross Rohtang.
Manali is a beautiful city in itself though. We spent 4 nights in Manali and could have spent another 4. Old Manali has the best cafes and pubs, while the Manali Mall Road is best suited for people who want to shop. Cafe 1947 and The Corner House are must visit places to eat and have a cup of coffee. We also drove down to the Solang valley which is famous for sporting activities such as ATV rides and paragliding. We enjoyed the view of other people gliding, while we took a stroll on the roads in Solang.
1. Beware of the buses in Himachal Pradesh. They would not stop for anything. The drivers try their luck, or at least it seemed so, on every turn and with every car.
2. If you are looking for a more peaceful vacation, stay in Solang Valley. It is just a few minutes from Manali, but definitely more cleaner and a peaceful location.
3. Try Lugdi, the local rice liquor, when in Manali. You will not have anything else at least for the time you are in Manali.
With nice cafes around, hospitable people to interact with and prayer flags waiving all around the city, we didn’t feel like leaving at all. All through our lives, atleast in the last 15 years, we had never travelled to a destination without reserving a hotel in advance. This was our first try at it. We reached the city without any hotel reservations and came across a lodge which was located right where you could see the sunrise unobstructed – The Kareri Lodge.
Our host at the Kareri Lodge was one of the most hospitable person we have met in our journey. In his late 50s, he told us stories about how he went to Delhi to work for a couple of years and could not understand why people are running all the time with no time for themselves. He could not live there and got back to McLeodGanj only to find peace in what he does best – host guests and help them explore the town ensuring they take back fond memories.
We explored around in Dharamshala and visited the Naddi Sunset Point in the evening. The sun sets a bit early in the hills but it is just stunning to view the sun hide from you within a matter of few minutes. Relishing Maggi with a cup of Chai while the sun sets, well, you can have that luxury only while you are travelling within India.
Norbulingka Institute is one of the most serene places around. You enter the premises and you feel you are in a different world all together. The serenity of the place is unmatched. You can learn about the Tibetan culture and art here.
Our first short trek was up to the Bhagsunag Falls. It is a 20-25 mins trek up on paved path and you are sure to get a great view to the falls. Another 10 minutes up from there was the Shiva Cafe. One of the best cafes which boasts to host a fresh flowing water pool.
1. Be ready to drive up some of the steepest roads from Dharamshala to McLeodganj if you plan to take a shorter route. The roads are steep but really fun to drive on.
2. You will find monks all around, considering H.H. The Dalai Lama’s Temple is also in McLeodGanj. After doing the Vipassana course, we could relate to this place so much more.
3. If you feel like catching a movie while on a vacation, you would be surprised with the quality of Movie Theatre in Dharamshala. Good comfortable seats with popcorn that costs only INR 40 ;)
After spending good 4 nights in Manali, we headed out to our next destination. Kasol, infamous for things that can help you to be ‘happy high’. It is just a 2.5-3 hour drive from Manali through the Kullu valley and Manikaran Road. Majority of this road was a single lane road where if any vehicle comes from the other side, you need to stop. The less aggressive driver (I took turns to show my aggressive side) reverses the car to find a wide piece of road, wide enough to let the other vehicle pass. If we were lucky, we would spot the Himachal local bus from a fair distance so that we have enough time to stop, reverse, shut our eyes and pray that the bus does not hit our car. The local bus drivers don’t usually know that there are three levels down below when you are driving a vehicle, they usually just stick to one while driving – the accelerator.
For our love for trekking, we chose one of the cafes/homestays, located a good 3 hour trek somewhere in a village called Gargi in Parvati hills, just a couple of kilometres ahead of Kasol. It is one of the best options for budget travellers who are willing to take some pain to experience what is out there in unexplored locations like these. The host was nice enough to walk down to the car parking and take us up to the cottage. The cottage dog ‘Koji’ also accompanied us in our trek. The trek was full of flowers and apple orchards which were frequently raided by the local monkeys. Our host and trek leader, Atul, pointed at the naked trees and mentioned that the apples are usually eaten by the monkeys and what is left over are these branches. After a strenuous 3 hour hike, we were there in our room. It was a place in the middle of the mountains with mild winds blowing. For the next two days, we were there in the cottage, did a couple of short hikes around while Teku ji, our caretaker helped us with sumptuous meals throughout.
The tranquility at this place forced us to just sit and read. Both of us enjoyed reading while we admired the beauty outside our window. The snow covered peak, which is called the Parvati mountain and the other smaller lush green peaks could be looked at for hours without getting tired. Our stay in Kasol, or rather, at Parvati valley, at the Gargi village was one to be remembered. Our trek down took us around 2 hours and this time we were accompanied by the other cottage dog ‘Jimmy’. Considering how scared Sidhi is of dogs, she made good friends with this one. In fact at times, she would look for Jimmy when he out-sped us while we picked up our pace to catch up.
Our next stop from Kasol was Jibhi. This drive was a rather exciting one. It is just a 3 hour from from Kasol to Jibhi via Bhuntar. The single lane road continues, and so continues the Himachali bus drivers. We might call them rash, but clearly they know what they are doing. Himachal road bus accidents are less frequent than in cities like Delhi, which definitely tells us something about their skill. We again chose an offbeat place to stay in Jibhi. The last two miles to the destination were rather complicated. It had just rained two days ago and since there was no road, the route had a few swamps. Our car got stuck and was pushed up with the help of 3 locals, of which one of them turned out to be the son of our host.
It was a small treehouse, literally, with the house resting on the tree and thick tree branches passing through the room. It had a nice balcony and all the facilities one could imagine in any modern condo. Another memorable, yet economical stay indeed.
1. When in Kasol or Jibhi, do not settle for the regular hotels or lodges. These are serene places and have some really offbeat places to stay.
2. The hosts go way beyond their call of duty to make you comfortable and arrange for anything you need, anything.
3. Be cautious while you are driving on these roads. They are not for the first time mountain drivers. My experience of driving in the Ladakh region definitely came in handy here.