+ The next few posts in the Ladakh series will focus on traversing the Manali – Leh highway. These posts will cover transport options from Manali, what to see, where to stop, and everything else you would want to know when taking this route.
+ The prices mentioned here are as of 2008. Please factor in inflation!
It is the difficulty involved in traversing the road that attracts travelers to make the journey from Manali to Leh by road. Nowhere else in India do you get to drive hundreds of kilometers without seeing a single permanent habitation. The road runs above ten thousand feet for almost entire journey, and the highest point on the road is above 18,000 feet. The landscapes are unparalleled. The superb greenery on the way out of Manali will be the last stretch of abundant vegetation that you encounter until the day you return from Ladakh.
The journey is hard by itself, and very often the mode of transport chosen can make things harder.
The Delhi – Leh Bus
It took some time to register in my mind that there really is a bus that goes all the way from Delhi to Leh. It is an ordinary bus with 2+3 seats, run by Himachal Road Transport Corporation. It is the cheapest way to get to Leh, and probably the most uncomfortable. It arrives in Manali around 10am and leaves an hour later for Keylong. Reaching Keylong by 5pm, the bus continues towards Leh next morning, arriving at the destination in the evening. Most of the time it will be crowded when it arrives in Manali. If you are lucky, you might find a few seats unoccupied in the last row when the bus leaves Keylong.
Shared Taxi and mini buses
Shared taxis, usually Tata Sumos, are the fastest way to get to Leh. They start leaving Manali as early as 2am, and make the marathon run to Leh in single day. Just one driver takes the wheel for the whole stretch of the road, driving for 20 hours or more. It is surprising to see the drivers take the road with great ease and still remain cheerful at the end of the day. For the lesser mortals, just sitting in the jeep can be a painful experience. If you want to enjoy the scenery on the road, this should be your least preferred option.
The taxi takes ten people and the driver. That will be two passengers in the front row, four in the middle and four in the back. The back seats have two rows facing each other, two people sitting on each side. The front seats are the most comfortable and costs Rs.1,200.00 The middle seats are priced at Rs.1,000.00 and the rear seats Rs.800.00
Shared taxis are not recommended for tourists. They are mostly meant for locals who would like to take the road as quickly as possible. If you have to take one of these, try to get the front seats. They can at least give you better views of the road.
Mini buses are a much more comfortable options. These are larger cabs that can take 12 people, and have comfortable seats for all. The front seats are obviously better than the ones at the back. Costs Rs.1,200.00
Many shared taxis take the route every day, and availability is usually not an issue.
This is the preferred option for travellers, also the most expensive. You can hire a taxi for yourself from any travel agent in Manali and get to Leh at your own pace. It usually costs Rs.10 – 12,000.00 for the first day, and about Rs.2,000.00 for the subsequent days. Bargain hard for a good deal. If you are alone or in a small group, you can hangout at a travel agent’s office to look for anyone willing to share the taxi. Many hotels in Vasisht also put up notices for sharing the taxis to Manali.
Some private operators and the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) run deluxe buses from Manali. They leave early in the morning and reach Leh in the next evening. Most private operators stop at the village of Jispa, while HPTDC buses usually stop at Keylong. Sarchu is located much higher than Jispa. Book in advance if you intend to take one of these.
Private Cars and SUVs
A lot of people prefer to take their own four wheelers to Leh. It is recommended to travel in groups, as there is no support system available on the route. Most people drive to Leh in two days, stopping at Jispa for a night. Though most of the private vehicles traversing the road are SUVs, it should be possible to do it by car. I have known people who have driven a Maruti Suzuki Swift. Although the roads are not comparable to the plains, it should be possible to get to Leh in most cars, provided you have good experience driving in the hills. The most risky areas would be the passes, which would be hard to cross in inclement weather. Rains can make the roads slushy near the passes, making them hard to cross. But on a sunny day, even the passes should not pose a problem. Don’t forget to travel in groups.
Manali – Leh highway is one of the most popular biking stretches in the country. The large bikes like Enfields seem to be the preferred choice, but people have gone through this road in smaller two wheelers too. That includes Hero Honda Splendors, and if what I have heard is true, Kinetic Hondas. But the commonly seen bikes are Enfields and Bajaj Pulsars. Once again, it is recommended to go in groups.
A twenty day walk takes you over some high passes over 16,000 feet, taking you to Lamayuru Village in the Indus Valley. The trek begins at Darcha Village in Himachal, passes through the town of Padum in Zanskar and ends in Lamayuru. The days of this trek is numbered. BRO is building a road over Shingo la to connect Darcha with Padum. Another road is making progress along the Zanskar Valley, connecting Nyemo in Ladakh with Padum. It may take a decade for the roads to be ready, but the length of the trek is getting shorter every year.