Visitors to Ladakh can fly from Delhi to Leh but that would be missing the best part of the trip and would not allow time to acclimatise. In summer, the drive from Manali to Leh is spectacular, all dizzying passes and snow-capped mountains, gorges and rivers and high altitude lakes bluer than the sky.
Record-hungry bikers claim to cover the 470 km in just over a day but from Himachal Pradesh to the Indus valley in Jammu Kashmir, three days are barely enough to do justice to the scenery. Roads are maintained by the army and open in the summer months, weather permitting.
Manali to Leh, Rohtang Pass to Keylong, Himachal Pradesh
At 3997 metres above Manali, Rohtang is the first high pass on the road to Ladakh.
The long drive to the top offers spectacular views of the Solang valley, with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery when traffic shudders to a halt. Up there, tented cafes await truck drivers, shepherds, army staff and pilgrims who come to pray at the source of the Beas river.
It’s much quieter on the other side, looking across the snowy Spiti range then heading down into the Lahul valley where peas and potatoes grow in tiny allotments. There’s the pretty village of Sissu, the dramatic gorge near Jandi and the last petrol station for 365 km. Keylong is a quaint overnight stop with a monastery across the river and Tibetan stalls along the lanes.
High Road to Ladakh, Indian Himalaya
Beyond Keylong, the road follows the river through juniper and scented herbs before climbing to Baralachla at 4850 metres. It’s a spine-chilling drive with windswept panoramas and clusters of parachute tents, made of discarded army stock, serving noodles and tea.
Marmots frolic on the slopes and at the end of the day, motorists and bikers stop in the Sarchu valley where tented camps nestle below the slopes, hugging a ravine eroded into fantastic shapes. Temperatures drop below freezing even in summer and in the morning, drivers light fires along the road to warm up the fuel tanks.
Jammu Kashmir, Indus Valley to Leh
The third day begins through an eerie moonscape carved by the Sarchu river and barren hills in stunning colours, red, pink, green, purple, gold. Then it’s up to the Nakila pass and Lachulung, just above 5000 metres, before reaching More Plains, a high wilderness plateau where nomads rush to the roadside to ask for water.
At 5200 metres, Taglung La is the highest pass along the way, buffeted by dust-laden winds and garlands of tattered prayer flags. No one lingers. The high Himalaya rise on the horizon and the road winds down to Jammu Kashmir and Upshi, the gateway to Ladakh. There the Indus flows silvery green towards Leh and there are blue magpies and willow trees and Buddhist monasteries perched on the hilltops.