Manali to Leh – An Extraordinary Himalayan Roadtrip

We crept past the sleeping desk clerk and out of the hotel at 1.30 am, walking through Old Manali in the pouring rain. Stray dogs howled and a rat scurried across the street in front of us. Along with my partner Teresa, I had been traveling in India for a few months. I both loved and hated this fascinating, vibrant, consuming and sometimes shocking country. Although there were times when I wished I was elsewhere, I knew the minute I left, I would yearn for India again.

We had lingered in the chilled-out village of Old Manali, enjoying the cool cafes, fresh mountain air and hikes through the woods. Feeling rejuvenated after the dust, crowds, and heat we experienced elsewhere in the sub-continent, we were about to embark on our final leg of the trip. We were heading to far-flung Leh, in the heart of the Himalayas. In fact, the bus was leaving in half an hour.

The ancient city of Leh is an adventure traveler’s dream destination. Tibetan-influenced, it is scattered with monasteries and stupas galore. Prayer flags flutter against the blue skies and snow-capped mountains. Saffron-clad Buddhist monks stroll through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and travelers sit in restaurants drinking fruit smoothies. The surrounding area provides white-water river rafting and trekking opportunities in a spectacular setting. A Himalayan utopia.

But first, the journey – an epic road trip offering heavenly views and an experience to be relished and remembered. However, I was only too aware of the downside. Many travelers suffer from acute altitude sickness in the form of headaches, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. The road has sheer drops to the sides of several hundred meters. Evidence of previous disasters remains in the form of mangled trucks and cars. It is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Many people, rather sensibly, choose to fly. Despite the warnings in my guidebook, I didn’t want to miss out on this epic journey, which had been persistently present in my travel dreams for many years.

Dangerous high mountain road on the way to Leh, India

The mini-bus that would hopefully take us all the way to Leh, waited for us on a street corner. It soon filled up with a raggle-taggle of international backpackers. The twenty-hour journey commenced.

The bus made its way up the mountains, speeding around hairpin bends in the mist and torrential rain. By the grace of Vishnu, we swerved oncoming lorries that thundered towards us in the darkness. Our gung-ho, pot-smoking driver was asked to slow down by a girl sitting behind us. She was told to ‘go to sleep’. She replied that she couldn’t sleep because she was too scared.

Meanwhile, Teresa was leaning out of an open window, throwing up in the driving rain. ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it,’ she said. We had been on the road for an hour.

As it grew light, the bus stopped at a desolate spot in a valley. Passports were collected and taken to a military checkpoint. We were in the disputed territory of Ladakh now, and parts of the region are still not open to tourists. A small café sold drinks, woolly hats, gloves, and scarves. It was freezing. Having been unfortunate enough to witness Teresa’s plight, a fellow passenger kindly offered her a travel sickness pill. After washing it down with a cup of coffee she felt a little better.

Dangerous high mountain road on the way to Leh, India

Back on board after a sleepless night, fatigue caught up with me, and I dozed off. When I awoke, the sun was rising, and the sublime beauty of the landscape became apparent. My eyes took in the snowy mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, high desert terrain, and sculpted rock formations. It was a spellbinding sight to wake up to.

At a breakfast stop a couple of hours later, I sat on a rock eating a yak cheese sandwich brought from Manali. I had eaten breakfast in some scenic places around the world, but here I was on top of the world, and it felt incredible.

The rugged 479 km road winds its way through some of the highest mountain passes on the planet.  I observed the crashed vehicles on the slopes, a warning to all who pass. Unfortunately, it didn’t serve as a warning to our driver, who continued to hurtle along at a breakneck pace.

The Border Roads Organisation, who maintain the highway, clearly only hire employees with a sense of humor. One of the features of the journey, are the unique and quirky yellow road signs that are placed periodically along the highway. ‘Do your dozing in bed’, ‘Mountains are a pleasure, only if you drive with leisure’ and the somewhat sexist, ‘Don’t gossip, let him drive’ were among the signs that we spotted.

I naively thought that perhaps there would be a change of driver after, say, nine or ten hours. It gradually sank in that this guy was driving all the way to Leh. Every few hours, the bus stopped at a cluster of parachute cafes, windswept and bleak at the top of the world. The driver would disappear into one of the tents and snatch a ten-minute nap.

The bus splashed through the runoff from waterfalls, which created fast-flowing streams and required skill to negotiate. We also ventured off-road, bumping across rough terrain. At one point, we became embedded in a ditch, and everyone helped to dig the bus out. As anticipated, this was no ordinary road trip.

Bikers roared past on Royal Enfields, the highway being a classic motorbike route. Hardy cyclists struggled up mountain passes. I felt admiration for their resilience in such adverse conditions, but also a little envious. There was a part of me that wanted to be out there too instead of ensconced in a bus, cut off from the elements.

We arrived at Tanglang La (5,300 metres), as the sun went down. The raw wind whipped across the lunar landscape, and a stupa covered in prayer flags marked the spot.

As night fell, the bus descended into a valley. By now, we were both suffering from altitude headaches and fatigue – our marathon road trip had taken its toll and were keen to reach our destination. At another checkpoint, located in a tiny, dusty village, we all tumbled off the bus, where a careful note was made of each of our passport details.

At 10.00 pm the bus finally rolled into Leh. As expected, it had been an adventure, and I was so glad I didn’t fly.

Leh, India Mountain View