A drive from Manali to Ladakh in India is considered one of the toughest in the world
The narrow road with a wall of snow outlining both sides was jammed. The traffic had come to a standstill. Nothing seemed to be moving, definitely not my toes, which were completely numb with the cold. Traffic jams are common around this area at 16,000 ft on the Baralachala glacier. Cars, oil tankers, busses, trucks, bikes snarled up for miles caused either due to the day swelling of the snow melted streams across.
Ladakh in northern India boasts of a drive compared to none. Across nine high altitude passes; the lowest at 12,000 ft and the highest above 18,000 ft, having the highest motorable road in the world, five breathtaking high-altitude lakes, Ramsar Convention being the natural habitat of an endangered wildlife, three magnificent Himalayan national parks, two 1,200-year-old monasteries, the drive through the heart of Ladakh is arguably one of the toughest roads in the world.
Every year, dozens of bikers and drivers cross over some of the most contrasting landscapes of the planet. Built and maintained by the Border Roads Organisation of the Indian Army, the road, though treacherous, otherwise is renowned for its unpredictability. Open from the end of May to mid September, the exact timings are dictated by the amount of snowfall that these passes receive.
There is a motorable road between Srinagar and Leh via Kargil. The most dramatic part of this road journey is the ascent up to the 11,500 ft or 3,505-m high Zojila Pass. The 473 km Manali-Leh road has been serving as the second land approach to Ladakh. The Manali-Leh road weaves in and out among the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Western Himalayas over a stretch of nearly 485 km. This important road, which was once a part of the ancient trade route between India and Central Asia, passes through Rohtang Pass, Gramphoo, Kokhsar, Sissu, Gondla and Tandi.
Taking the roads
Reaching Ladakh is not easy, unless you fly both ways Delhi-Leh. But then, as a friend told me, “If you fly, you miss everything in between.” There are two ways to reach Ladakh overland. One is the Srinagar-Leh highway and the other the Manali-Leh highway. Some reach Ladakh on motorcycles and some cycle on this terrain full of surprises. For me the choice was by car.
The view at every turn of the Manali-Leh highway imprinted images that remained with me long after. The road surface varied wildly from bumpy asphalt to dirt tracks sliced frequently by glacial streams. This journey along different river valleys from Manali to Leh generally takes around 24 hours with an overnight camp at Sarchu.
The range of the Himalayas signals that you are approaching Ladakh. This road goes along our age-old barren valleys. Sindhu is the river that was a lifeline for many for thousands of years. It fed one of the oldest civilisations of the world – the Indus Valley Civilisation. Marked by silk routes, cold deserts and reclusive nomads, Changthang plateau in Ladakh has held the allure of a bygone world for me.
Words: Anupam Chanda