Passing through no less than eight of the highest motorable passes in the world, some spectacularly scenic high altitude lakes as well as unbelievably beautiful vistas, the journey from Srinagar to Manali via Leh is a journey that will remain with you for an entire lifetime. Depending on how big or short your itinerary is the trip from Srinagar to Leh and Leh to Manali can take upto 4-6 days to cover. Add to it your excursions from Leh to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake and you can easily add 4 more days to your itinerary. A road trip like no other ensure you keep an extra day or two to take care of delays and blockades caused by inclement weather conditions and you are all set to begin the journey.
Take the Srinagar Leh route for the first part of the journey both because it is a low altitude climb and also because the roads open much earlier and apart from the stretch near Zoji La, the roads are also in much better condition than the Manali-Leh Highway.
Total Distance: 440 Kms
Day 1: Srinagar to Sonmarg: 85 kms
A drive that takes you through golden fields swaying in the wind on one side and towering majestic hills looking down upon you from the other finally culminates in the picturesque town of Sonamarg. Aptly named fields of gold, the lush green meadows of Sonmarg and the beautiful vista around will tug at your heartstrings. Sonmarg also sees heavy influx of tourists on their way to Amarnath yatra so be ready for some bustle during the Amarnath season. There is heavy army presence in Sonmarg, but they are only there for our safety, so don’t be deterred from enjoying the beautiful sights of Soamarg. Also don’t miss out on the delicious food at Sonmarg, especially non the vegetarian fare, your taste buds are in for a rare treat. Sonmarg is equipped with petrol pumps, ATM’s and decent mobile connectivity as well.
Sonmarg to Zoji La – Drass – 62 kms
The most treacherous part of the journey involves navigating the forbidding Zoji La Pass located at an altitude of 11,642 ft. What makes the journey so treacherous is the absence of good road on this stretch, at some parts it is nothing more than a dirt track and becomes even more difficult to cross in monsoons.
Zoji La is where you might experience delays unless have had the forethought of checking on the ascending and descending times. The narrow road to Zoji La allows only one way traffic, hence there are pre-determined timings for ascending and descending the Zoji La Pass. You are also required to register your vehicle at the army checkpoint located at the Zoji La Gate. Don’t fret if you are required to wait for the gate to open for your side of traffic, simply use the opportunity to capture the majestic view all around you for some memorable memories to rekindle later on.
Once you have crossed over to the other side, the road miraculously turns motorable again. From there on the drive to Drass hardly takes any time but the biting wind of Drass are sure to spread chill to your bones even in the heights of summer. The second coldest place on earth after Siberia, temperatures in Drass can go as low as -50 degree centigrade. Drass offers reasonably priced accomodation so you can either choose to make a night halt here or drive ahead to Kargil which offers a wider range of options although slightly higher priced than Drass.
Drass to Kargil: (58 km)
Good motorable roads will ensure you reach Kargil from Drass in virtually no time. A must visit for every Indian if only to pay homage at the War Memorial to the multitude of soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the Kargil War, Kargil is where most tourists prefer to make a night halt. Plenty of options for stay are available and amenities include petrol pump, ATM and mobile connectivity, though only BSNL coverage might be available and Airtel in some pockets.
Day 2 Kargil to Lamayuru via Mulbek, Namika La and Fotu La (110 kms)
A short drive of 40 kms will bring you to the small quaint town of Mulbek, an important point on the tourist map due to the presence of the 9 metre long solid rock carved statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, believed to be dating back to the 8th century. Next comes crossing the relatively smaller Namika La Pass before navigating the tallest pass on the Srinagar Leh Highway, the Fotu La Pass located at a height of 13479 ft and commanding a majestic view of the beautiful valley beneath. From there you descend into the village of Lamayuru, another important tourist landmark due to the presence of one of the oldest and most famous Gompas in Ladakh.
Lamayur to Leh via Hangro Loops and Nimmu (125 Kms) :
This is where your skills as a driver are likely to be tested as you navigate the 18 steep and sharp loops called the Hangroo Loops that come in quick succession. Once you have crossed the last hurdle on the way, a straight road takes you to Nimmo where you can make a quick halt to visit Gurudwara Pathar Sahib before finally reaching Leh.
A beautiful journey culminates into the naturally landscaped Himalayan city of Leh.
Having covered all the sights and sounds that Leh has to offer on the first day, you can spend the next few days covering Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake before beginning the drive back to Manali.
Leh- Manali Total Distance: 475 kms
Route: Leh- Karu- Upshi-Gya- Tanglang La-Pang- Lachulung La- Nakee La- Gata Loops- Sarchu – Bharatpur – Baralacha La – Zingzingbar- Darcha- Jispa – Keylong – Kokhsar – Gramphu –Rohtang – Manali
Day 1, Leh – Tanglang La-Pang-Sarchu- Barlacha La – Jispa (345km):
Unlike crossing Tanglang La from the other side to reach Leh which can take a toll on even the most experienced driver, crossing from the side of Leh will seem like a breeze in comparison. For one you are doing it fresh in the morning and for the other there is no AMS to contend with since you are moving from high altitude to a lower one.
Watch civilization slowly disappear from view as you drive away from Leh and towards Tang Lang La with its peak lying 5300 meters above sea level. A signboard proudly proclaims that you are at the highest point of the Leh Manali Highway, watching the spectacular view of the snow clad peaks Himalayas spread out before us, almost feels like we are standing side by side.
Once you cross Tanglang La, come the relatively smaller passes but nonetheless beautiful passes of Lalchung La with its spectacular land formations and the Nakee La with the Indus flowing lazily besides till you reach the most adventurous adrenalin pumping part of your journey, riding the Gata Loops, a series of 21 hair pin bends that make a roller coaster ride seem normal in comparison. You will soon start seeing signs of civilization as you cross Baralacha La and approach towards Keylong and then Jispa, both of which are ideal for night stay offering several stay and eating options.
Day 2 crossing Rohtang Pass to reach Manali
You can call it the crowned prince of the Leh-Manali Highway or even a dreaded monster, either ways traveling through Rohtang Pass promises to be an experience of a lifetime as you try to make your way through a hairpin bend on what can only be called a bumpy gravel (definitely not a road) while the car is sloped at a 60 degree angle. You can surely lay claim to driving greatness once you successfully complete this heart thumping but nevertheless exhilarating journey and reach the other side of Rohtang pass to make your way to Manali through a fairly decent road.