From any perspective, the Leh – Manali journey has epic written all over it. With roads that only open up for a few months of the year (June – September) the 470km journey will test you, scare you, shock you and leave you spellbound.
We found another couple in Leh to share the price of a taxi to embark on the 2 day trip. We were promised a 4×4, but as in customary in India, when the vehicle actually turned up it definitely didn’t match the description. Less off road vehicle, more 1990’s people carrier.
A couple of hours outside Leh, all civilisation vanished. Suddenly, we were on Tanglang la, the mountain pass with its peak at over 5300m. This is where we crossed the highest point of the journey. With our hearts in our mouths, we twisted up and down the steep slopes, flying around the corners with expert precision.
The journey continued like this for 8 hours, climbing high until we were all breathless and getting headaches until finally weaving our way down the other side of the pass. Although you can never completely relax when being centimetres away from the edge of a crumbly mountain road, there is only so long you can freak out for and we began to enjoy the adrenaline rush it provided.
Eventually the light began to fade and thanks to two flat tyres and no spares, progress had been slow and we weren’t going to make it to our first destination by nightfall. All we could see was the few meters ahead illuminated by the car’s headlights. It was hard to decide if this was preferable to seeing the endless cliff faces of the day, or even more disconcerting. After another few hours we pulled up to a hotel in Keylong to rest for the night.
The next day we set off for the final stretch. The only thing standing in our way of enjoying a nice cold beer in Manali was the Rohtang Pass – the crown prince of the Leh Manali Highway. Looking at a map, it appeared like we had covered 90% of the distance yet our driver said it would still be a 6 hour journey. It was hard to believe the roads could be any worse than the day before, but indeed they were.
We zig-zagged back and forward across the mountain face, climbing ever higher until we were looking down at the clouds below us. The views from the top of this final pass are the most breathtaking of the entire journey. On one side you look out onto huge dark brown mountain faces, capped with snow and upon driving over the top you are faced with a beautifully green, fertile valley.
2 days, 2 flat tyres, 3 terrible looking accidents and 4 very sore bums later we arrived in Manali. In reflection, It was the most breathtaking and humbling car journey I have ever had the fortune to go on, but not one I would do again in a hurry! It’s hard to shake the feeling that the road shouldn’t be there at all. The mountains are so tall and the areas so remote, it defies belief that it exists. It’s a real privilege to be able to access such extreme and hard to reach places.