Ladakh is one of the world's highest and driest inhabited lands. Sometimes referred to as Shangri La or "Little Tibet," it is located between the world two highest mountain ranges — the Himalayas and the Karakorum range.Until 2019, Ladakh was a region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir but that year, as part of the move to make Kashmir more of an integral part of India, Ladakh became its own separate union territory.
Ladakh is about the size of West Virginia or half the size of England. It state covers 59,146 square kilometers ((22,836 square miles), is home to about 275,000 people and has a population density of 4.6 people per square kilometer. A large portion of the population live in rural areas, some of them quite remote and isolated. Leh and Kargil are the joint capital and largest towns in Ladakh. Leh is home to about 31,000 people and Kargil has about 16,500..
Some parts of Ladakh are so remote they have never been surveyed. The lowest parts of Ladakh are along the Indus River which originates in Ladakh and eventually makes its way into Pakistan. Nowhere does the river drop below 2,000 (6,500 feet) in Ladakh. Some of the highest roads in the world — including one that crosses 5,793 meter (19,005 foot) Umling La and a military supply route over 5580-meter (18,370-foot) Chanla La Pass — are located not far from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The highest roads are in southern Bolivia and Tibet.
The mountain around Ladakh are so high they block out the monsoons, and consequently the most of the region is a cold, high-altitude desert, receiving less than 7.5 centimeters (three inches) of rain a year. Ladakhis look foreword to dry hot spells because the sun melts glacier ice, their main source of irrigation water. Only one in ten acres of Ladakhi land is arable; and apples, apricots, barely, wheat. peas, beans and mustard (for oil) grow so rapidly in the mountain air that sometimes two crops can be harvest in the summer growing season. The religion, culture and history of Ladakh are closely related to that of Tibet. The main religious groups in the region are Muslims (mainly Shia) (46 percent), Tibetan Buddhists (40 percent), Hindus (12 percent) and others (2 percent). The Muslims and Hindus are mainly in the western Kashmir side of Ladakh or in Leh.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Ladakh (‘land of the passes’) is one of the most elevated (2,900 meters to 5,900 meters msl), and coldest regions (from -30°C to -70°C) of the earth. In consonance with the above description, its topography is barren and population sparse inhabited along the river banks of different valleys namely Indus, Nubra, Changthang, Zanskar and Suru. The mean annual precipitation is less than 50 mm, received mostly in the form of snowfall during winters. The region faces fast blowing winds 40-60 km/hr mainly in the afternoon hours. The soil moisture remains frozen during winters and with low relative humidity during the summer months.Despite such inhospitable conditions for survival, it is postulated that Ladakh has been occupied by humans since pre-historic times, as evidenced in the discovery of Lower Palaeolithic tools, Petroglyphs and other pre-historic art works that mark the beginning of man’s interaction with this cold desert landscape. Evidence of its continued occupation can be ascertained throughout history since then, which is closely associated with Tibet.” [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]
Indus River is Ladakh’s — and Pakistan's — largest and most important river. Flowing southward from the Himalayan Karakorum range to the Indian Ocean, the Indus River is 1,900 miles long and drains an area of 971,245 square kilometers (375,000 square miles). The broad valleys of the Indus and its tributaries defines Ladakh’s and Pakistan’s heartland. South Asia's greatest civilization was founded along its banks and much of Ladakh’s and Pakistan's population relies on food irrigated by its waters.
The Indus gave India its name. The A.D. first century Roman historian Pliny gave the Indus its name. The Indus is at its lowest in February, when water in the Himalayas is locked up in snow and ice. The river is at its highest in June when it is swollen from snow, ice and glacier melting. It is not as influenced by the June-October monsoon rains as other rivers.
The Indus is a brilliant blue green color along much of its length. When the brown muddy Kabul River merges into it, the two colors are clearly visible as two distinct streams. After that it is often muddy brown in color. It carries great amounts of silt, sand and gravel, which is deposited on its bottom, causing the river to rise. The Indus prone to flooding and has unleashed some catastrophic floods.. Embankments and dams have largely tamed the floods.
Route of the Indus River
The source of the Indus River is in Tibet. Fed by streams comprised of melted snow and glaciers, it follows the disputed Pakistani-Indian border through Ladakh and Kashmir. After it enters Pakistan it passes flows through spectacular gorges, near some of the highest mountains in the world, including K2 and Nanga Parbat, and follows a section of the Karakorum Highway.
After flowing out of the mountains, the Indus River joins its main tributaries—the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej—and enters the Punjab, which means "five rivers." In the Punjab, the Indus is harnesses to irrigate the breadbasket of Pakistan. Huge irrigation project harness the waters of the Indus to grow rice, grain and vegetables. The Punjab is the only part of Pakistan you could is say is really green. On its final leg to the Arabian Sea the Indus River passes through the Sind, near the ancient Indus Valley cites. The Indus empties into the Arabian Sea via a 130-mile wide delta.
The Indus is of great value to both Pakistan and India. An 1960 water agreement between the two countries gives Pakistan water from the west tributaries (the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) while Pakistan gets water from the eastern tributaries (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej). Both countries have built massive dams to harness the river for irrigation water and hydroelectric power. The Indus River and its tributaries support the largest system of irrigation canals in the world. These rivers flow through areas, namely the Punjab, where the soil is fertile but the rain is often unpredictable.
The Srinagar-Leh Road, also known as National Highway 1D, NH-1D, or the Srinagar-Leh Highway, is 700 kilometers (435 miles long) and is covered in a two day bus ride. It was begun in the 1960s to bring supplies to fight the Chinese and completed in the 1980s to bring supplies to fight the Pakistanis. Before the road was complete it was 16 day trek from Srinagar to Leh. Now a bus covers the distance in about 18 hours.
The road climbs through farms, orchards, snowcapped mountains, to 3,528-meter (13,700-foot) Zoji La, after which the bleak landscape of the Tibetan Plateau and the cold desert of Ladakh begins. After a while the road descends to Dras and a tributary of the Indus, the marks the tense, disputed border between India and Pakistan. Here both of sides of the river bristle with tanks, soldiers and gun placements.
Kargil marks the half-way point on the Srinagar-Leh Road. Some buses used to stop here for the night, passengers sleep in a hotel and get on the bus the next morning to resume the trip. Kargil also marks the dividing line between Muslim Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. From Kargil the roads climbs and then descends to the Indus River and follow the river all the way to Leh.
Winter snows close the road from September to July. Much of the traffic on the road is military convoys. These day, because of the trouble in Kashmir, most visitors to Ladakh fly in. In 1999 there was heavy fighting around Dras and Kargil, with Pakistani soldiers shooting at anything that moved on the road. Things are not like that now.
The Srinagar-Leh Road follows the historic Srinagar-Leh-Yarkand Silk Road trade route along the Indus River between India and western China. Flooding occurs in low-lying sections. Road is generally open from early June to mid-November. Avalanches and landslides may temporarily close sections.
National Highway 1 (NH-1) is one of India’s longest and oldest highways. Included in the Grand Trunk Road. It passes through northern India. Links New Delhi to Attari near the Pakistani border. Passes through Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Ambala, Kurukshetra, Karnal, Panipat, Sonipat and Delhi. May close due to wide spread floods or protesters setting up blockades. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2010] The NH-1 has 4 spurs linking isolated towns and villages in the Himalayas to the national road network. 1) The spurs include: NH 1A: Jalandhar - Madhopur - Jammu - Banihal - Srinagar - Baramula - Uri; 2) NH 1B: Batote - Doda - Kistwar - Symthan pass - Khanabal; 3) NH 1C: Domel - Katra; 4) NH 1D: Srinagar - Kargil - Leh.
Traveling Around Ladakh and Zanskar
Henry Wismayer wrote in the Washington Post: I’m “in the Toyota Innova behind taciturn driver Tundup, hurtling through a canyon high above the milky torrent of the Zanskar River. Overhead, the mountains tower in pastel shades of pink, blue, green and purple, which bleed together in ripple swirls around granite bedrock. As Sonam sleeps — inexplicably, given the buttock-clenching road — I battle with the urge to write down every one of the endlessly entertaining road-safety warning signs that you find disseminated by the military throughout India’s Himalayas. Here in Ladakh, these head-waggling couplets — “Drinking whiskey, driving rishky,” “Always alert, accident avert” — crop up with such regularity that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the army’s main job up here is daubing them at the side of the road. [Source: Henry Wismayer, Washington Post, July 31, 2014]
“It’s not that the Indian army isn’t ubiquitous: “Pakistan on one side, China on the other, what to do?” Sonam laments lyrically as we pass yet another sprawling barracks. But there is none of the barely concealed tension I’ve experienced in neighboring Kashmir. Certainly, modern geopolitics seems a world, and a millennium, away in the Zanskar canyon. As if to reinforce the sense of time-warp, we leave the car on the road next to some ruminating goats and walk into Chilling, a crumbling hamlet where hens cluck in courtyards full of marigolds and children look on in mute curiosity at my passing. In the shade of a venerable Kashmiri willow, in a little medieval workshop perched on a bluff, we find the metalsmith hunched over a little charcoal fire.
“This is Rinchen Palden, 82, a wiry man in a chapan tied with a pink sash, beady black eyes peering from a narrow face, two yellowing tusks projecting from his lower jaw. The earth around his crossed legs is scattered with hammers and etching tools. But when I ask about his craft, he becomes melancholic. “The young ones are not interested in learning,” he explains in a reedy voice, as I look through the delicately carved bangles of polished copper that he now sells to the travelers who come to meet him. Soon, he is convinced, the art will die out for good.
“Outside Palden’s humble workplace, the toffee-colored scarps of the Zanskar range proclaim the reason why. What was once a reclusive aerie for hippy anchorites feeding off the zen is now a major destination for adventure tourism, a place to unleash your inner intrepid. For Ladakhi youngsters, tourism has become a career of choice, exposing them to Western aspirations, and a major source of jobs and income.
“Today’s tourists hire muscular Royal Enfield motorbikes to drive up spectacular switchback roads that go up and over some of the highest drivable mountain passes in the world. (Having seen some of them teetering amateurishly down Leh’s Main Bazaar, one can only hope they have done sufficient circumambulating). Trekking routes, many of them formidable, lung-busting affairs, lattice the Ladakhi landscape like thrown-down noodles. Distracted by the cultural attractions, I opt to eschew the allure of the mountains (in truth, climbing the stairs of the guest house can seem effort enough), so I nod to Ladakh’s venturesome side while sitting down, on a white-water rafting trip down the Zanskar. Two hours after I left Palden to his craft, the series of churning rapids that has carried our raft back down the Zanskar regurgitates onto the mud-brown Indus, on water that will drift on to irrigate southern Pakistan.”
Kargil (200 kilometers from Srinagar and 233 kilometers from Leh) is the second largest town in the Ladakh region. It is home to about 16,500 people with maybe 35,000 people, many of the Shiite Muslims, in the area. Kargil was the site of heavy fighting between India and Pakistan in 1999.
Kargil marks the roughly half-way point on the Srinagar-Leh Road. Some buses used to stop here for the night, passengers sleep in a hotel and get on the bus the next morning to resume the trip. Now most buses that do the 18-hour Leh-Srinagar trip stop in Kargil for a break. Kargil also marks the dividing line between Muslim Kashmir and Buddhist Ladakh. From Kargil the roads climbs and then descends to the Indus River and follow the river all the way to Leh.
There isn’t much to see in Kargil but the countryside around it is nice. Kargil was once a an important stop on the India-Afghanistan-Central Asia-Tibet caravan route. Today it is a dusty town right across the Indus River from Pakistan. Most of the inhabitants are Muslims and most of the tourists are on their way from Srinagar to Leh or on their way to explore the Zanskar region. Over the next pass on the way to Leh most of the inhabitants are Buddhists.
Zangla Monastery is located in the picturesque Zangla area of the Kargil region. Perched atop a hill, it is noted for beautiful wall paintings and murals. Home to around 150 lamas, the monastery belongs to the Drukpa order and is much visited for the spectacle of Tibetan studies conducted by Hungarian scholar Korosi Csoma Sandor in 1823-1824.
Zanskar Region is a 5000-square kilometer area of spectacular colorful twisted mountains centered along the long Zanskar Valley. Most of the residents here are Buddhists and the main town is Padum. The 16th century Karsha monastery (two hour hike from Padum) is the largest and wealthiest monastery in Zanskar; Burdan (10 kilometers from Padum) has an interesting collection of idols and stupas.
The lovely fertile valley of Suru connects Kargil with Padum. At the upper reaches of this valley are the towering 23,000 foot massifs of Nun and Kun, the highest mountains in Ladakh. Impressive rock sculptures can be seen in Khartse and Rangdum has a 17th century monastery perched on a hill. A challenging winter trek to Padum is possible along the frozen River Zanskar. Nights are spent in villages and natural caves.
Zaskar is a Buddhist area where Tibetan culture and medieval lifestyle is more unspoiled than in Ladakh. Perched at a height of 13,154 ft, Zanskar Valley is a semi-arid region nestled in the northern flank of the Himalayas. What draws tourists to this area are the beautiful snow-capped mountains here, pleasant weather, Zanskar's sparkling water bodies and a lush landscape. The valley lies 105 kilometers away from Leh and is a hotspot for adventure travelers who engage in trekking, paragliding, white water rafting and mountain biking. Among the popular treks are Lamayuru to Darcha and the Padum trek. Centuries-old monasteries like Zongla, Zongkhul, Strongdey attract tourists. One can camp at the scenic Penzila pass that separates Zanskar from the Suru valley. During winters, the temperature can dip to a frigid -30 degree C. One can generally only travel to Zanskar between June to September. Other times of year the roads are closed by snow.
Dzongkhul Monastery (30 kilometers northwest of Padum) was founded by Mahasiddha Naropa, an Indian Buddhist. A place of rest and meditation. The cave in which Naropa spent time is still located at the site of this monastery. It is said that he struck his hand staff at a rock at this spot which resulted in the founding of this monastery. Many Mahasiddhas of Zanskar like Dubchen Kunga Gyatso, Dubchen Nawang Tsering, Dzadpa Dorje, Karmapa, Kunga Choslag, and lama Norboo have meditated here. The monastery houses important items like image of Samvara, a crystal stupa and religious texts containing biographies and scriptures. There is also a meditation cave, which is said to have Panchen Naropa's footprint that's embedded into a rock along with his sacred spring that is revered to this day.
Suru Valley is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, pristine rivers and verdant valleys. Located in the Kargil district, it boasts a mix of Turkish and Tibetan architecture that is reflected in the smattering of quaint houses here. A popular attraction is Kartse Khar, which features a 7th-century statue of Lord Buddha that stands at a height of about 7 feet. Tourists can also visit Rangdum that is home to a monastery and two hamlets. Panikhar is a popular base for those wanting to embark on mountaineering excursions. The Zangla Monastery is also located close by and is a must-visit. The hills of Suru Valley are cultivated more than any other region in Ladakh and for adventure lovers, the Nun Kun Peak has majestic geographical variations of glacial structures, alpine slopes and majestic peaks.
Villages and Settlements in Ladakh
Dah-Hanu Villages of Dha and Hanu (163 kilometers northwest of Leh) are among the few villages that are home to the ethnic Drogpa tribe of Leh, renowned for their hospitality. They are said to be the descendants of the original Aryan or Indo-European race. These villages are a great way to explore the cultural diversity of the region and a huge pull for photographers, who love to capture portraits and scenery. The tribes have a unique ornamentation style and interesting headgear that makes for great pictures. Dha and Hanu are located in the Brokpa region of Leh and are famously known as the 'Last Aryan Villages of India'.
According to legend when Alexander the Great came to the Indus Valley and then moved on to Beas, he left a few of his clansmen behind who settled down here. Out of a number of Brokpa villages, only these two are open to tourists. Buddhism is the main religion here but locals also offer worship to the animist pantheon of gods. The villages of Dah and Hanu are also known for their cultivation of wine grapes, cherries, walnuts as well as apricots.
Choglamsar (outskirts of Leh) is a Tibetan settlement. Sprawled along River Indus at approximately 11,000 feet above sea level, it is famed for the exquisite Tibetan choktse tables as several artisans who make these handicrafts reside in the village. The village also has a handicraft center mainly devoted to carpet weaving. Many artisans travel from this village to sell their wares in the main city. The settlement also features a striking gompa that is perched on a little hill.
What makes the gompa so attractive is its distinct golden facade that shines even from a distance. Not just this, the gompa also offers beautiful vistas of the surrounding landscape. Apart from the gompa, you can also visit the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies. The village also houses a popular children's village. His Holiness the Dalai Lama's prayer ground in Choglamsar, known as Jivatsal, is an oasis of peace; and monasteries of Spituk, Sabu and Sankar are other popular attractions visited by tourists.
High Passes and the Highest Road in the World?
Some of the highest roads in the world — including one that crosses 5,793 meter (19,005 foot) Umling La— are located not far from Leh. The road over Khardung La (a pass) in Ladakh was long said to the highest road in the world. It it connects Leh with military outpost for the Sichuan Glacier it also purportedly contained the highest road bridge — a 98.4-foot-long Bailey bridge near Khardung-La. It was said that elevation of Khardung La is was 5,602 meter (18,379 feet) and that it is the world's highest motorable pass.
The elevation of Khardung La is actually 5,359 meters (17,582 feet). The road is only passable three months out of the year. Roads across Khardung La, Tanglang and Chang La passes are the highest roads in India. They are closed about six months a year, due to heavy snows. Avalanches and cold temperatures pose a risk to road users, hikers and mountain climbers.
Khardung La (39 kilometers north of Leh) is also known as Khardung Pass, and locally pronounced as Khardong La or Khardzong La. One of the highest road passes in Ladakh and the world, it is 5,359 meters (17,582 feet) high and is an adventure to cross and challenge that has attracted people in cars and motor bikes, and even bicycles. Also, known as the Pass of Lower Castle, it also offers picturesque panoramas as well. Visitors can drive up to Khardung La and there is a cafeteria, viewpoint and a sign where people take photographs but are encouraged not to stay long out of concerns of coming down with altitude sickness.
A gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys, the road over Khardung pass was built in 1976 and opened to motor vehicles in 1988. It is currently maintained by the Indian Army, especially to supply goods to the Siachen Glacier. The pass is covered in snow much of the year. The temperatures at Khardung La are very hard to predict. The average temperature in summers reaches up to 20 degree C, while in winter it can down to -40 degree C.
Chang La (75 kilometers southeast of Leh) is another very high pass that can be crossed with a relatively good road. Chang La is 5,360 meters (17,590 feet) above sea level. This pass is the main route to Pangong Lake and the gateway to the Changthang Plateau, which is known to be the home of the nomadic Changpa tribe. Tourists can also visit the nearby Tangtse village. The pass remains inaccessible during the winter months, from November to April. This pass is home to the world's highest research station, founded and maintained by the Defence Research and Development Organization.
Magnetic Hill (7.5 kilometers southeast of Nimmoo and 26.5 kilometers west of Leh on Srinagar-Ladakh road) is said to defy gravity by pulling vehicles upwards instead of downwards. Reaching a height of 4,267 meters (14,000 feet), this hillock is "Cyclops hill" The layout of the area and surrounding slopes create the optical illusion of a hill. The hill road is actually a downhill road. Objects and cars on the hill road may appear to roll uphill in defiance of gravity when they are, in fact, rolling downhill.
Lakes, Parks and Valleys in Ladakh
Pangong Tso (220 kilometers from Leh) is a lovely clear, turquoise blue lake set among a dry, grey, and brown landscape. Perched at a height of 4350 meters (14,270 feet) above sea level and is said to be one of the highest brackish water lake in the world. Lying almost on the Indo-Chinese border, a part of it falls in India, while the other is in China. The beauty of the lake is such that it has been a cinematic backdrop for the popular movie “Three Idiots. In fact, there is a Three Idiots Point in the area, where the famous yellow scooter from the movie's climax is stationed. The lake is about 5 kilometers wide at its broadest point and about 134 kilometers in length. There are also a variety of camps that surround the banks of the lake which offer budget to luxurious accommodation.
Tso Kar Lake (50 kilometers from Tso Moriri, 175 kilometers south of Leh) is the smallest of the three high-altitude lakes of Ladakh. Situated at a height of 4,657 meters (15,280 feet), this remote lake is bordered by lofty mountains that are home to the elusive snow leopard. Also called white lake due to the white salt content in the water deposits on its shore, it leaves visitors in awe of its beauty. The area surrounding the lake is rife with wildlife and flora, and it also makes for an important point for bird watchers, especially during migration season when several species come here to lay their eggs, including the black-necked cranes. The nomadic settlements of Thugje and Gursan are guardians of the lake and its surrounding area. The ideal time to visit this lake is between the months of May and August.
Nubra Valley (150 kilometers from Leh) is an oasis of green, surrounded by mighty brown mountains. Stark yet stunning, with vast stretches of arid sand dunes, ancient ruins and serene Buddhist monasteries, Nubra is attracts a surprisingly high number of tourists despite its remote location. Perched at the confluence of Rivers Shyok and Siachen, the parks undulating sand dunes and double-humped Bactrian make it clear this a cold desert. The valley is also home to the famous Pashmina goat. Panamik village, nestled close to the Siachen Glacier, makes for a great stopover. Diskit Monastery, Yarab Tso Lake, Maitreya Buddha, Samstanling Monastery and Khardung la Pass are some of the other major attractions here.
Hemis National Park (south west of Leh) is a high altitude national park in eastern Ladakh. Also known as or Hemis High Altitude National Park, it is famous for its snow leopards, believed to have the highest density of them in any protected area in the world., and home to other endangered species such as shapu, bharak and ibex. Hemis is the only national park in India that is north of the Himalayas, and India’s largest national park. The park is bounded on the north by the banks of the Indus River, and includes the catchments of Markha, Sumdah and Rumbak, and parts of the Zanskar Range.
Trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar
Leh-Ladakh's diverse terrain includes mountains, valleys, and rivers, making it a haven for trekking enthusiasts. It is important to get acclimatised to the weather of the region before embarking on any trek, whether short or long. These treks navigate through remote villages and pristine locations, offering a peek into the local life of villagers.
Some of these treks may last for a few hours or a few days. Some popular routes include Lamayuru to Alchi trek, Ripchar Valley trek, Padum to Darcha trek, Lamayuru to Stok Kangri trek, Markha Valley trek and Jhulum Hemis trek.
The famous wintertime Chadar Trek starts from the village of Chilling and covers 66 kilometers, much of it on the frozen River Zanskar, hiking past icy formations and sleeping in caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites. It is very important to have an experienced guide who leads the trek. It is not suitable for children and most adults as it is a difficult trek. Only those who feel they have a high level of fitness can do it. It takes about nine days to cover the distance and scales a height of 3,352 meters (11,000 fee)t. February is considered to be the best time to complete this trek as the ice is most stable during that month.
Trekking In Markha Valley scales a height of approximately 3,700 meters and takes about eight days to complete. The best season to embark on the Markha Valley trek is from June to September. The trekking along the Markha river bring you to the village of Nimaling, where you can witness the tall peak of Kangyatse. Other peaks that can be viewed along the route include Saser Kangri, Stok Kangri, and Nun Kun. The most delightful part of this trekking route is that it passes through Hemis National Park, with many snow leopards, ibexes and blue sheep. Being properly acclimatised is important before embarking on this adventure. It is best to complete the trek in a group with a professional guide.
Mountain Biking and Whitewater Rafting in Ladakh
Due to the presence of two prominent rivers ,the Indus and the Zanskar Ladakh offers amazing river rafting opportunities to thrill-lovers. The Zanskar river features one of the best gorges for navigation in the world. Whitewater rapids are found in abundance as rafters head down the river and witness spectacular geological formations all around.
There is also the chance to enjoy the hospitality of the Zanskari people. There are various tours that can feature a rafting distance of 5 to almost 30 kilometers. Even shorter rafting tours can be organised for a few hours. Some of the places that feature on these rafting routes include Tsogsti, Nimoo, Scorpoche, and Chilling. This adventure activity is best enjoyed in groups. The shorter routes are easy and perfect for families with children while the longer ones are apt for adults who have some experience with this type of sport.
There are several mountain biking trails across Leh-Ladakh. Adventure-seekers can bike on Khardung La, which is considered to be among the highest reasonably good roads in the world, along the shores of Pangong Lake, through the Warila pass, in the Nubra Valley, and by the banks of rivers Indus and Zanskar. Several tour companies organise day-long or multiple day biking tours for individuals and groups. Along the way, bikers are treated to local cultures, homestays and food. Since this is a strenuous activity, bikers must make sure they are fully acclimatised and in good shape before they embark on this adventure. Mountain biking is a great way to see the Leh-Ladakh region for those who like to bike and are up for the adventure in the mountains. Some companies may need visitors to prove they are fit for the adventure with short exercises or doctor certificates. The tours vary in their levels of difficulty.
Leh–Manali Highway is one of the highest roads in the world. Traversing 479 kilometers (279 miles), with 230 kilometers (140 miles) in Himachal Pradesh and 260 kilometers (160 miles) in Ladakh. The road is open from June to mid-October, it reaches a height of 5,359 meters (17,582 feet) at Tanglang La, the second highest drivable pass in the world after another pass near the Tibetan border. Part of the road follows the old Indo-Tibetan-Turkestan-China caravan route. The primary towns and villages are Leh, Shey, Karu, Upshi, Gya Sarchu (state border between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh), Zingzingbar, Patseo, Darcha, Jispa, Keylong, Tandi, Sissu, Khoksar, Gramphu, Rohtang, Manali
The Leh–Manali Highway connects the Lahaul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh, north of Delhi, with the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh, between Kashmir and Tibet. From Manali in the Kullu valley, the relatively new highway crosses not only the Himalayas but also the Zaskar Range and reaches Leh in the upper Indus valley.
The Leh–Manali Highway was designed and built and is maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) of the Indian army. It supports the heaviest army vehicles. The average elevation is more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) This rough roads shows the Himalayas in all their glory. Mountain ranges flank the road on both sides, featuring stunning sand and rock natural formations. The length of the Himachal Pradesh will be shortened by about 46 kilometers (29 miles) when the Atal Tunnel is opened in 2020, avoiding the Rohtang Pass.
The Leh–Manali Highway begins in the verdant Beas Valley of Manali and passes over 13,078-foot Rohtang La and 16,010-foot Baralacha Pass, following the Rohtang River much of the way. The landscape changes immediately after Rohtang Pass as one enters the Chandra river valley in the Lahaul region that lies in the rain-shadow. The greenery on the southern side of the mountain pass disappears and the mountain slopes on the leeward side become brown and arid. The mountain peaks, however, are covered in snow and shine brightly in the sun. Baralacha pass is the entrance point to the stark barren landscape of the high Tibetan plateau. Here travelers cross two more passes — 5650-meter (16,620-foot) Lachalung La and 5,358-meter (17,582-foot) -high Tanglang La — before it enters the main Indus Basin near the sheep farm of Upshi. From here it is only 50 kilometers to Leh.
Road Conditions on the Leh–Manali Highway
Leh–Manali Highway is also known as Manali-Leh Road, National Highway 21, and the Manali-Keylong-Leh Highway. It is generally only open for about four and a half months in a year, from May or June, when the snow is cleared from the high passes, and mid-October, when snowfall again blocks the passes, The road crosses the More Plains, a 40 kilometer-wide plateau between Leh and Sarchu. The plain is flanked by mountain ranges. The road quality is poor in many places and high speed can cause discomfort.
The Leh-Manali highway is generally two lanes wide (one lane in each direction) without a road divider. Some sections of the road are only wide enough for a single vehicle. If two vehicles meet, one often has to back up. The bridges and culverts are often poorly constructed. There are over a dozen Bailey bridges, some in poor condition. The is road vulnerable to washouts and landslides. There are many damaged stretches and under-maintained portions, where even a little rainfall can trigger dangerous landslides. There are also no guardrails above some 500-meter (1,500-foot) sheer drops. The It crosses many small streams of ice-cold water from snow-capped mountains and glacial melts without bridges and requires driving skill to negotiate fast-flowing streams.
Conditions on the pass often worsen at night. Sudden temperature drops can produce ice and winter-like conditions in the pass even in summer. Snow and rain can make the highway slushy or too slippery to travel. Past precipitation can also create travel hazards. Much of Rohtang Pass remains covered by snow even in summer. Adjacent glaciers melt (more so as the day wears on) and water overruns the highway in many places. This water is ice-cold and travelers should avoid situations where they might have to wade through it. Manali-based Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports issues warnings of hazardous weather conditions along the road. They set up rescue posts to aid stranded motorists. Helicopters provide emergency transportation when needed. Helipads are available in Keylong and most nearby villages.
Traveling on Leh–Manali Highway
The journey from Manali to Leh normally takes two days, but can take longer depending on the road and vehicle. It is difficult to predict exactly how long it takes since the weather and road conditions can change suddenly. The peak travel season is during May and June, when tourists visit Rohtang Pass. Most domestic tourists return to Manali and do not cross north of the pass.
The Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) and the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) both operate buses that travel the entire highway in two days. Buses start from Manali north at 4:00am and after every two hours or so until 12 noon. The time to Keylong is four to ten hours depending upon the condition of the road. Traffic jams may occur at Beas Nallah near Marhi and again at Rohtang Pass. It is advisable to cross Rohtang Pass before 8:00am.
Public buses provide transport between Manali, Keylong, Kaza and Leh. HPTDC luxury buses provide transport along the Manali- Kaza-Keylong-Leh route. During the peak tourist season, private buses serve the Keylong-Leh route. Buses fill quickly. People often ride on the roof. Not recommended, due to safety risks. Buses are available from the Old and New bus stations in Manali. Buses serving the Keylong-Manali route use the New bus stand; located near Mall road. Reserve seats ahead of time. Seats on HP Tourism Buses and private mini-buses must be booked in Manali.
Private four-wheel drive taxis are available. Shared taxis are cheap as they charge per person, but they may be full of local residents who will prevent good views of the scenery outside. Some tourists travel from Manali to Leh and elsewhere in Ladakh on motorcycles, generally in a group. Tourism buses and private mini-buses are more comfortable than public buses. Fares are lower on public buses.
Leh–Manali Highway is popular with cyclists. You need adequate provisions when cycling or hiking, as the region is largely uninhabited. Climatic conditions can be harsh. Temperatures often drop below freezing, and sometimes reach - 25 degrees. Road work is often being done at certain places when the road is open. Proposed improvements are expected to save hours off the travel time. A tunnel, bypassing Rohtang Pass, is being built.
Food, Accommodation and Gas on the Leh–Manali Highway
There is a variety of hotels and guesthouses in Manali and Leh. There are also hotels and government rest houses at Sissu and atKeylong (a district headquarters). There is one luxury hotel at Jispa. Guesthouses are available at Jispa, Karu, Kokhsar village, and Upshi.
Dhabas — no-frills roadside eateries with tea, maybe some snacks at low prices — can be found at some otherwise uninhabited places along the highway. Dhabas are not motels, but many let customers lie down and rest, and some can provide an inexpensive dormitory bed (without private toilet).
Another option is sleeping in a tent or under the stars. If you have your own sleeping bag and tent you can sleep pretty much wherever you want. It is best to find a place some distance from the road with a source of water. Remember it can get quite cold at night. There are tent camps with basic and inexpensive tents that you can get like a hotel room, though luxury tents (Swiss-cottage tents) exist in Jispa and Sarchu. Some dhabas offer basic tents. Tent accommodations are available in Bharatpur (below Baralacha La pass, inhabited only during tourist season), Darcha, Jispa, Pang, and Zingzingbar.
There are no fuel stations on final 365 kilometer (227 mile ) stretch between Tandi and Leh. Vehicles should fill up at the start of this stretch, and motorcycles and vehicles with small tanks should carry additional fuel in cans. In an emergency, fuel may be available at small towns en route (Sarchu, Pang, etc.), but this fuel may be adulterated.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020