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The Leh to Manali Highway

See the sublime splendour of the Indian Himalayas, the majestic snow-capped peaks, the stark and ethereal beauty of the world’s highest and most romantic mountain range! The magnificence of nature revealed in all its craggy, towering glory, waiting just for us. After a wonderful few days exploring Ladakh, we were to travel the long and winding Leh to Manali highway to take us from lofty Ladakh to the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh.

No Bridge Over Troubled Water

See the sublime splendour of the Indian Himalayas, the majestic snow-capped peaks, the stark and ethereal beauty of the world’s highest and most romantic mountain range! The magnificence of nature revealed in all its craggy, towering glory, waiting just for us. After a wonderful few days exploring Ladakh, we were to travel the long and winding Leh to Manali highway to take us from lofty Ladakh to the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh.

Indus and Zanskar

It’s just that the holiday sales pitch promotes the magisterial tranquillity of the experience without fully explaining the other, less expected, ‘joys’ that await the hapless tourist on their journey of a lifetime. It’s the laws of physics applied in a wider context, as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so every experience of aesthetic perfection must necessarily be tempered with some form of discomfort or inconvenience.

Travelling the Leh to Manali highway is a remarkable journey that takes three days. Our mode of transport for this illustrious road trip was a coach. If you are travelling in a coach on a long and winding road be aware that it could be bumpy. Don’t, whatever you do, sit in the back seats – you may want to relive those school trips where the cool kids all sat at the back of the bus, but the suspension and the road will have you bouncing around all over the place.  

Leh to Sarchu

Soon after we left Leh we crossed the Taglang La – the second highest road in the world (at the time) at 5328m. When the road marker stated, ‘Unbelievable is not it?’ we couldn’t help but agree.

Taglang La pass

Then we wound our way through the Gata loops, a series of 21 hair-pin bends, which required the coach to engage in some mildly terrifying 3-point turns in order get around each curve, with the driver’s assistant getting out at each bend to take the vehicle’s wheels to the very edge of the road with its precipice below. Indeed much of the journey involved travelling along single track roads which skirted long drops to the valley below.

Leh Manali highway edge of the road

It is a lonely, desolate road, but also a strangely beautiful road.

Leh Manali highway

But it can be a dangerous road. All along the highway we saw evidence of vehicles that had not stayed on the highway and had plummeted several hundred metres into the valley below and were gently rusting in the river.

Leh Manali highway crashed lorry

Along the route are camps where it’s possible to get a break and a cup of tea or a snack. We would see many workers whose job it was to maintain the road each year.

Leh to Manali rest stop

We were headed for Sarchu where we camped at 4200m.

Camping at Sarchu

Considering the remoteness of the location the accommodation was good – our tent even had an en-suite toilet, basically a long drop loo with a seat. There was no shower but no need even to think about showering, or even getting undressed, as the temperature was very cold indeed. This was the highest altitude we have ever spent the night and, although we both had slight headaches, were generally fine.

Sarchu to Jispa

The following day would involve the long and winding road climbing to 4891m at the top of the Baralacha La Pass and then descending to Jispa which was a pretty place to stop for the night. It was possible to have a walk around the area – much needed after sitting on a coach for hours on end.

Jispa stupa
Jispa

Jispa to Manali

The next day would offer something altogether unexpected. The Leh to Manali highway is a beautiful one and a treacherous one, but it is also the only one. Maintained for the short window of the year that it is actually traversable, the long and winding road is a marvel of man against nature. Except nature always, always wins. A case in point: scattered along the expansive road are a number of bridges crossing unfeasibly deep gorges through which the mighty Indus flows, plunging hundreds of feet into foaming rivers of kinetic danger. These bridges, as innumerable signs tell you, can only take one – that is one – vehicle at a time at a maximum speed of 5mph. So naturally a mini-convoy of four articulated trucks decided to play Indy 5000 across a particularly vulnerable bridge with inevitable girder-crashing results.

Leh Manali highway damaged bridge

The result? One non-bridge slap-bang in the middle of the one of the world’s most inhospitable roads with ‘no-go’ season rapidly approaching and little opportunity to retrace our steps.

We had already travelled for two days. There wasn’t really any going back. It started raining. The ravine approached, with its considerable drop to rocks and fast flowing river, strewn with debris in busted and rusted decay. When we finally arrived at the crossing, the bridge was being slowly reassembled to make it safe to travel across the fissure of fear. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be ready in time for us to cross. But cross we must. Fortunately there was a solution.

Crossing the Indus

A petrifying solution that made rickety wobbling across a rusty bridge inside a heavy coach utter bliss compared to what was on offer: A cage. An open metal cage. A cage that needed to be accessed from the edge of a slippery jetty over a rocky fall. And then it was hoisted across the raging river on a rope, with the claustrophobic couple of passengers squished in together, along with their possessions, suddenly wishing they had packed less and not eaten so much. Horrifying consequences consolidated in the imagination as we were compacted in the cage of doom and pulled across the ravine in abject terror.

Fortunately these concerns proved to be unfounded as the cage glided across the turbulent torrent and deposited both human cargo and their luggage at the destination. Safe at last and on terra firma, rather than experiencing terror further. Soaked to the skin but with our lives and luggage intact, we dripped with joy. It’s a shame the coach didn’t make it (there was no cage and rope for the vehicle) but a back-up had been made available on the other side.

Leh Manali highway

The experience had left us in much need of recovery sustenance. Fortunately for the ravenous rescuees there was a roadside café that offered a vat of dal and a plethora of freshly made chapatis that beckoned consumption. After such an ordeal any food may have been welcome, but this was the best tasting dal experience ever, the spice a delight, the texture a perfect consistency, with the forever welcome taste of fresh chapati allowing for distribution of the soupy lentil joy to instigate itself on the palette and in the stomach. Survival dal! A memorable meal.

Then it was simply a drive over the Rohtang pass (3977m)…

Rohtang pass

…and into the lush valleys of Himachal Pradesh towards Manali.

Leh Manali highway

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19 Comments

  1. That is one beautiful drive yet I’m not sure if it’s more exciting or terrifying! Haha. Driving on those roads would be nerve wracking but the views are definitely the reward. Impressive that you crossed the river in the metal cage! I’m sure the dal tasted amazing after that!

    • It was a remarkable journey and the views were stunning. The cage was unbelievably scary so the dal on the other side was extra delicious and very memorable! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I think the fallen cars from the one road would have been about enough to get me to jump out of the coach to walk! Terrifying is not it! Lol The cage crossing at the end is equal parts terrifying and hilarious. At least it got you to your destination I suppose.

    • Hee! Yes, it was kinda disturbing seeing all those cars and lorries rusting away at the bottom of the canyons. A lot of the journey we couldn’t see the edge of the road. The river crossing really was scary – but we survived!

    • It was a fantastic experience and a remarkable journey. Yes, we were soooo cold – even Colin, who normally doesn’t feel the cold, and wears a t-shirt even in the middle of winter here. He didn’t really want to carry a coat all around India but actually needed it that night!

  3. Wow!!! What a journey! Younger me would have been in my element but now I think I would just cry, especially in that cage.

    I love the sign at Taglangla – that made me smile!

    • Thank you. It was an incredible journey but the cage really was a challenge! And the Taglang La sign is brilliant – it was so exciting to be at such an altitude.

  4. Always fun to read a post like this 😉 The thrill and the joy of travel is as wonderful as a bumpy coach ride on a dangerous pass with views to behold. I am sure it was the best tasting dal ever after that ride!

    • Thanks so much for reading and for your comment! It was a remarkable journey – beautiful and dangerous. And neither of us have forgotten the taste of that dal – it was sublime!

  5. You are much braver travelers than me! I’ve only watched about these kinds of roads on Youtube and was so scared from my sofa! Still, it sounds like you had a memorable trip here and to a beautiful part of the country!

    • Thank you! I think the bravery probably came from not having a lot of choice in making the crossing. But we survived and it made for a great anecdote!

  6. You created a fabulous atmosphere in the writing of this piece – I followed in with trepidation thinking ” I would never do that” . I guess if that is the only option than it has to be done but i would have had palpitations the length of that journey. I’m not good with heights and thus would never have been able to look down the side of the ravines from the coach. As for the cage – I would have been terrified, No doubt fantastic memories to look back back on and what a journey. I hope that bridge has been well and truly repaired now! Great post.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment. It was a remarkable journey. Yes, there were many times when the coach was trundling along the edge of the ravine and we couldn’t see the road from the coach window! We had to queue for about an hour to get into the cage – the anticipation was worse than the actuality. But, as you say, a fantastic memory!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! In retrospect, it was an amazing experience, but pretty scary at the time. The cage crossing was really unexpected for us too!

  7. Well you had told me it was an exciting trip but I didn’t realise quite how exciting it was. Guess you didn’t want to worry your mother!

  8. That journey sounded amazing. The cage may have been my wifes downfall. what a great post about an amazing area.

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