By Praveen Gupta
Ladakh has always been a paradise for bikers and the Manali-Leh highway is indeed the stairway to this heavenly place. This highway is tricky and totally crumbled and one must be extremely careful while riding. But once you climb up, you are on top of the world. And the feeling is incredible.
Our trip was to begin at Manali on July 4. The Manali-Leh highway remains closed for almost eight months. It opens in late May until September. It is not advisable to travel in late May or early June because melting ice causes sludge and water streams and may impede your journey for days. The monsoon arrives in late September in this part of the country, so July-August is a favorable time to visit. Volvo buses run by Himachal Tourism and other operators reach Manali overnight from Delhi. We reached Manali on the morning of July 3, rested and bought a few articles like gumboots, bungee cords and rain sheets. In the second half of the day we checked our bikes, had a test ride, and filled our tanks so that we could start the journey early morning.
Our destination was Keylong, 117 km from Manali. The roads were full of potholes and the real challenge was to cross Rohtang Pass, a 5-km stretch which was in too bad a shape to be called a road. There was two feet of sludge at some points and we had to literally lift the bikes to cross them. We reached Keylong around 6 pm, checked in and enjoyed the beautiful landscapes from our guest house.
An adventurous and mesmerizing day. We crossed dozens of broken bridges and freezing cold streams. Baralacha Pass is the point where you can expect ice for sure. It was thrilling to ride on roads packed with solid ice on both sides in sub-zero temperatures. Stop here for a while, play with ice, take some snaps, and enjoy nature. Landscapes become more picturesque as you approach Sarchu plains and you cannot stop gazing at their beauty — a solid road with plains on both sides and ice-capped mountains in the background. We stopped at Pang, which was a mistake because the altitude is 15,500 feet, which gave some of us a serious headache and body pain due to AMS (acute mountain sickness). It is advisable to stay at camps in Sarchu.
The third day was comfortable and fun. After Pang the road miseries are almost over and now you can enjoy riding in the lap of the Himalayas until Leh. As you leave Pang you are on Moore Plains, a 42-km stretch that will ease your grip on the clutch. After Debring you ascend to the second-highest pass in the world, Tanglang La (17,700 ft). Here onwards, the roads are very well maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO). We took a lunch break at Upshi Punjabi dhaba and food was unbelievable. The road from Upshi is straight and it took less than 2 hours to reach Leh.
A relaxing and easy day. Our target was to touch the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La, at an altitude of 18,360 ft. This was the ultimate destination for which we came and pleasure was truly immense after this feat. In the evening we went to Thiksey monastery and enjoyed an experience that you cannot find in the rest of the country.
We started early for Drass, our destination for the day. The second-coldest inhabited place in the world, Drass also played a vital role in the Kargil War. Kargil is 230 km from Leh and Drass is another 70 km from Kargil. But the road on this 70-km stretch is totally crumbled. The Leh- Srinagar highway is one of the most picturesque highways in India. We rode slowly and enjoyed the beautiful landscape.
We reached Srinagar at about 2:30 pm after riding 200 km. We did not have much time and it was too hot in Srinagar so we choose to rest in the afternoon and enjoyed a shikara ride in the evening. We also found time for a little shopping.
We rode around 700 km over the seventh and eighth days. We reached Pathankot on the seventh day and Mandi on the eighth day. Finally, our journey ended on July 12. In the evening, we left for Delhi.
Some dos and don'ts to keep in mind if you plan to make this trip.
- Book bikes at least a month in advance to get the best ones, preferably Enfield Bullets, so as to have minimum bike breakdown.
- Don't rush to Sarchu for the first day's break. Many people make this mistake. Sarchu is at a much higher elevation and doing so will expose your body to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).
- Do not forget riding boots, raincoat, and gloves; without these you won't be able to ride as roads are grubby and it's freezing cold in some places.
- Carry jerrycans for extra petrol as there are no filling stations in a span of 360 km after Tandi (100 km from Manali) and the quality of black market petrol cannot be guaranteed.
- Always check your bikes before starting in the morning or at the end of the day in the evening for minor faults. Keep an eye on engine oil level, brake pads, chain, and clutch.
- It is advisable to take a mechanic with you as there are no workshops or mechanics after Keylong.
- Carry some spare parts for the bike and medicines for headache, body pain. Add packets of glucose to your kit.
- Don't smoke at higher altitudes as it might cause breath-shortening due to low oxygen content.
- Do not ride hastily as the roads are narrow and muddy, and may cause some serious injuries.
Places for night stay
- On the Leh-Manali highway you will get guesthouses at Keylong and tented accommodation at Sarchu and Pang. It is advisable to stay at Sarchu rather than Pang.
- On the Srinagar-Leh highway you will find accommodation at Kargil and Drass, but Kargil is a better pick.
- Fuel stations are available at Tandi, Upshi and Leh while ATMs are available at Keylong, Upshi and Leh.
Praveen Gupta is an avid biker and lives in Udaipur, Rajasthan