Manali-Leh road, meet the stars – Ladakh

To reach Leh , capital of Ladakh , many people, pressed for time, opts for a Delhi-Leh return flight. It’s fast, comfortable and allows you to have more time on the spot for your trek in Ladakh. It seems to optimize your vacation. It’s a bit of the pain of our time, even when traveling, everyone is in a hurry. But impossible on the plane to understand why Ladakh is so different from the rest of India. To understand and understand this reality, we must take the road and realize how Ladakh is a kingdom nestled in the mountains and so to speak completely cut off from the rest of the world . It was so in any case before the advent of the plane and the construction of the Manali-Leh road. And then the road offers a grand spectacle that you will not forget anytime soon.

Indian roads are rarely easy. Dantesque movement, in town a concert of honking horns, even a symphony, except that the instruments are poorly tuned. But the Manali-Leh road is made of another kind. No more traffic jams, chaos and pollution, up in the mountains. And in comparison, to say that our neck Tourmalet with 2115 m or Alpe d’Huez and its 21 turns are rather pale. Manali-Leh is 480 km of high mountain road with a culminating point at the pass of Tanglang La at 5328 m . It’s the highest driveway in the world .

The bus trip lasts two days . It may seem long for “only” 480 km but as I said before, it’s not really an ordinary road. As we climb above Manali, the vegetation disappears little by little to give way to a very mineral and almost uninhabited universe. It will be understood later that the points on the map do not really correspond to villages but rather summer camps that are there only to feed and accommodate travelers. In fact of road, many sections rather resemble a track. Crossing an oncoming vehicle is not always convenient. We appreciate quite quickly the courtesy that when a bus crosses a truck, it is always the truck that rolls side precipice . Sometimes it’s very fair. And sometimes it does not pass, as evidenced by the few truck wrecks that can sometimes be seen at the bottom of the precipice. Unless it’s drivers who fell asleep at the wheel. Obviously, when you cross another bus, the courtesy rule no longer works. One could embark on a complicated calculation to determine the number of women and children and the average age on board that passes panorama side but for once we found a much simpler solution, the bus passengers side “I do not want to dive “are asked to get off the vehicle to go back once the maneuver is over.

Most of the crossed vehicles are trucks that come to supply Ladakh with various consumer goods and military convoys. Ladakh with the conflict in neighboring Kashmir and proximity to China is a fairly sensitive area.

On the low side, it is not uncommon to meet extreme roadmenders employed to repair this road. These black mouths that prepare the bitumen in big metal cans that burn along the road would almost give you the impression of having landed in a world of Mad Max . The working conditions of these men from the poorest parts of India are calamitous. But without them, this road would not exist.

Vision of unreal also when the bus stops to load two monks and their meager luggage waiting at the edge of the road. As far as the eye can see, no habitation, no sign of life. Then comes the question, “but where do they come from?” They do not speak English so the mystery will remain intact. Arriving at Leh after these two days of travel offers a strange feeling. We are surprised to find ourselves again in a city. Leh is a small town but its presence, lost in the heart of the Himalayas, seems incongruous. Fatigue helps, we also feel the satisfaction of having somehow deserved to be here .

Practical advice

First advice, do not opt ​​for a seat at the bottom of the bus . Do not like me who said to me when I saw the middle seat in the back seat “great, I’ll have room for my big legs”. Room, no problem, I got some. The only worry is that at each pothole, and there are too many between Manali and Leh to be able to count them all, instead of taking off softly from my seat, I was literally ejected . I could not hold onto the handles of the seats, nothing helped. I even banged several times on the ceiling of the bus, a real rodeo. It obviously depends on the delicacy of the driver. Mine was kind of young and fiery! So the first half of the bus is very good but beyond the rear axles, unless you want to play the service clown (I laughed my neighbors by banging me) to avoid so. I will finish the first day on the roof with the luggage. Unobstructed views and optimal comfort provided you find soft luggage to wallow in the middle.

You can choose between more comfortable but more expensive private buses and public buses. Most tourists opt for private buses. For my first trip, I chose the public bus and was the only westerner on board . Personally I prefer but to each his preferences. A pretty interesting option if you are a small group of 4 or 5 people and opt for a jeep that covers the distance in a long day. We chose this option for my second trip in 2003. To count about 18 pm with a departure around 2 am. It also allows the driver to stop for a few pauses. It is also possible to go by truck by going to the meeting points of the trucks around Manali. The experience may be interesting if your driver is nice. It will usually cost you a price slightly lower than that of the public bus, provided you negotiate well.

Few people take the option of making the trip and the return trip by bus. This then raises the question between doing Manali-Leh by bus and return by plane or vice versa. I can not recommend too much to opt for the first solution, and this for several reasons. The Manali-Leh road is very often subject to landslides and may be closed for several days before being repaired and again passable. If it’s closed, you should still be able to find last minute flight for Leh, you have some flexibility. If it’s back, it can turn into a big hassle and make you miss your Delhi-home flight, unless you’re a long-time traveler. Then comes the problem of altitude and the risks inherent in climbing too fast without acclimation . To make the trip by bus to the return diminishes indeed this risk because you will then be better acclimated after your stay in Ladakh. But on the other hand, to make the trip by the road to the go participates in this acclimatization. And for once, it does not really represent days lost because you should have anyway stay a few days in Leh (which is 3500 m) to acclimatize before leaving on a trek. The trip is not long enough to make it really dangerous to go up as fast. However, expect a bad night on the way because of the altitude.

Finally the Manali-Leh road is open from early June to late September for buses and from mid-May to mid-October for jeeps. But keep in mind that once mid-September it becomes very random with the risk of snow at any time.