Leh (Leh-Manali Highway)
From the lush green mountains of the Kashmir valley to the multi-coloured mountains of Drass and Batalik, we marched onwards to the cold desert mountains of Leh in the Ladakh region. Not a tree could be spotted as far as the eye could see, it was only some snow covered peaks at a distance. But that didn’t mean that they were any less beautiful from what we had already seen. It was just a different kind of beauty, something you will not see anywhere else but in India. Amidst all this, we never miss an opportunity to pull our ride off-road and click a couple of shots.
This was not our first time in Leh. We visited Leh with our parents exactly a year ago. We flew then and as the flight was landing in this cold desert, we were just awe-struck then. Both of us thought that this is a place where we will come again, hopefully by road. A year gone, and here we were standing clicking the roads as if we were meant to be here, always. Less cars on road gave us an opportunity to park our ride, set up the tripod right in the centre of the road and capture the memories for years to come.
The best home stays in Leh are not available online and there are plenty of them there. We were happy we did not book an accommodation before arriving, so that we had an opportunity to choose our abode since we were there for almost a week. Gurgu Homestay, a 5-min walk from the main market was a perfect choice. With blooming gardens, large sized rooms and amazing hosts, we could not have asked for anything better. When we were in Leh a year ago, I had seen a young tourist sitting in his patio, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a book. Not sure why, but that whole setup had stuck my mind for long and I always wanted to replay it. A year later, I did it!
We tried many cafes and restaurants in Leh, but one that we kept on going to again and again was ‘The Lamayuru’. Coffee at ‘The OpenHand Cafe’ and a few meals at ‘The Tibetan Kitchen’, Leh is a food paradise for people of all tastes.
When in Leh, we had enough and more to do within and around the city, such as Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, Magnetic Hill, Hall of Fame, The Leh Palace (skip it!), the local market, Thikse Monastery, Rancho school, but that is not all. A few far off places were just amazing. We had visited the Pangong Tso (the lake from 3 Idiots movie) in our previous visit, so we thought of driving to the lesser visited but no lesser beautiful, Tso Moriri. A separate blog will talk about that in detail. Another place we had visited earlier, but we could not skip it still was the Khardung La Pass, the highest motorable road in the world at an altitude of 18,380 ft. above sea level.
If our car had any senses of it’s own, I doubt it would have ever imagined that it would drive down to the highest motorable road from Gurgaon. What a drive it is. Driving above the clouds does not remain a phrase anymore, it becomes a reality when you are driving to KhardungLa. It’s just snow all around you. You can see the clouds at your eye level. And you are still driving higher and higher. Eating Maggi and sipping coffee at the highest cafe in the world brings a sense of achievement for travellers like ourselves.
Driving past Khardungla, we were on our way to the land of the double humped camels, Nubra Valley.
1. If you are planning a trip to Leh for less than a week, apply for more leaves and extend it further. Anything less than that and you are not doing justice to the beauty of the Ladakh region
2. When in Leh, follow a few tips or else you will fall ill off mountain sickness. A couple of days before landing in Leh, start taking ‘Diamox’. The day you reach Leh, do nothing, absolutely nothing. Relax in your room and watch some television. Try to be a superman and your trip will be spoiled.
3. The food in Leh is to die for. Sadly, we prefer vegetarian food, but those who don’t, say that non-vegetarian is even better. Try different cafes, restaurants and coffee houses, but don’t miss
Nubra Valley (Leh-Manali Highway)
Many would argue that a trip to Leh is incomplete without visiting the Nubra Valley, and we concur. We missed visiting the Nubra valley on our last visit to Leh due to lack of time, but we made sure we don’t miss it this time. Since it is located in some of the restricted areas of the Ladakh region, an ‘Inner Line Permit’ is required to visit the region. We got it through a travel agent since we realised that we need a permit a little later and visiting the office ourselves would take us a long time. The cost is INR 600 per person per day, or INR 700 per person per week. An ILP is required to visit Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso, so we made sure we get a 7 day permit so that the paperwork is out of our way.
We made a small mistake and mapped ‘Nubra Valley’ on Google Maps, our guide across all destinations. Sadly, it is not rightly placed on Google Maps, so we had to come back 2 hours after someone told us to map ‘Hunder’ instead. It took us some time to reach, but we could not complain about the detour as well. The whole area is so scenic that a drive is never ever tiring.
On the way we visited the Diskit Monastery. It is really hard to miss, considering the size of the Budhha Statue which is visible from far far away. I always wonder how the monasteries are always located on top of one hill or the other. I am sure it is a mammoth task to build these structures but once built, they all are iconic. It is difficult to compare the grandeur of the structure with anything I had seen before, maybe the Buddha statue I had seen in Hong Kong long back.
We stayed at the ‘Wooden Nest’ there. One of the best places around with a small stream of water flowing through the resort and nice wooden cottages with all the amenities you could think of. There is no phone network in the whole region though, so be prepared to be cut off from the world while you are at Nubra.
Nubra is primarily famous for two things – it’s white sand deserts and the double humped camels which add to the beauty of these deserts. The view of a white sand desert surrounded by barren mountains all around is quite stunning. Don’t ask me the reason why the camels have two humps here and why are they not found elsewhere (well, yes they are also found in few numbers in southwestern parts of Kazakhstan too). I could not find a logical answer myself.
1. Nubra Valley is a huge valley, but the best places to see are in Hunder. Do not get confused if you are driving yourself.
2. One night stay in Nubra is good enough if you just want to visit the white sand desert and the double humped camels, but an extended stay won’t hurt if you are looking to spend some time away from the hustle bustle of the city.
3. If you plan to visit the Pangong Tso, go straight from here instead of going back to Leh first. There is a direct route from Nubra which is shorter and has better roads than travelling from Leh.
Tso Moriri (Leh-Manali Highway)
Tso Moriri is the less visited cousin of Pangong Tso which gained popularity in recent times because of it’s appearance in ‘3 Idiots’, the Bollywood movie. Moriri Lake is almost 6 hours drive from Leh. The drive to the lake is as or more beautiful than the lake itself. The roads are part built and part broken, but we did not get the time to focus on the road since the surroundings were mind blowing.
On our way, we stopped over at one of the most romantic parks we had seen. It is not anywhere to be located on Google Maps but surely has a name - ‘RaniBagh’. The trees were tall and the leaves so yellow. It reminded us of the old Bollywood movies. I am sure a few of the old movie songs were shot here when the actors and actresses used to dance around the trees in most of the songs.
The colours around us were just magical – the mountains, the trees, the grass, the water and the road. It seemed like a fairy land where it was just the two of us. Lack of cars on the road were an indication of how less traversed these roads were.
Clicking pictures with our faces away from the lens is just our thing. We believe that the person looking at the image focuses more on the person than the beauty around if the subject is facing the camera. We tend to get most of our pictures clicked this way, and we are just not into editing the photos beyond a point.
We spotted a few stallions next to the narrow roads leading to Tso Moriri. There is another small lake on the way, called ‘Kyagar Tso’. No one stops by these lesser known places but believe me, it’s not always the places which are famous that are good. These lesser known places are the real gems which remain untouched and hence more beautiful.
Next morning, we woke up to this view from our room. Absolutely clear and blue sky, cottony white clouds, sparkling clean water in the lake and the freshest air anyone can inhale.
A drive to Tso Moriri is so memorable that even today, I dream of being next to the lake and waking up to this view. It’s a place bookmarked to be visited again whenever I get a chance.
1. If you have to choose between Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, choose the former if you care more about the destination and the latter if the journey matters more to you.
2. Kyagar Tso and Tso Kar are two smaller lakes near Tso Moriri. When visiting Tso Moriri, stop by them as well. These are the less visited ones, but worth a pitstop.
3. There are few hotels as well in Karzok, but there is nothing better than staying in a homestay and interacting with the locals here. They are super helpful and hospitable and would tell you stories a hotelier can’t.
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.
Manali (Leh-Manali Highway)
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.