So, after years of looking at awe-inspiring photographs of blue skies and lakes in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, and saying “Next year, for sure!” you’ve finally taken the plunge. The leave is approved and the savings are in place. It’s time to go to one of the most incredible places on earth — Ladakh. What route to take? What to pack? What places to see? What would be the ideal vehicle to take up there? We provide the answers.
Let’s just sort out a few things beforehand. If you’re going with a tour operator with everything in place, you might as well be going to Goa. Well, almost. Just pack warm clothing and a good camera. But really, you shouldn’t go down that route. The purest way to experience Ladakh, in my opinion, is to cycle, trek or go on a motorcycle. Since many of us don’t have the time for the first two (or the fitness!), motorcycling it is. Driving up there is a good option as well, but you’re still cocooned from the elements. In a way, when you finally haul your behind all the way to Leh, it should feel a bit like you’ve earned the right to see this beautiful, remote place. So, let’s get started.
There are two ways you can approach it — going there via Kashmir or via Himachal Pradesh. Now, the 434-km Srinagar-Leh highway is the tamer of the two, with (nearly) all-seasonal functionality and a lot of fantastic roads along the way. The 3528-metre Zoji La pass does tend to get pretty hairy at times, but the rest of it is usually in a much tidier state than the Manali-Leh route. The high-altitude passes Namik La and Fotu La, when resurfaced, make for some brilliant corner carving roads as well. Stay at Sonamarg in J&K along the route — it’s as Swiss as it gets without leaving India — and a night spent at the monastery in Lamayuru (100 km short of Leh) is worth it — the brightest, clearest night sky you’ll ever see. The other advantage is that you’ll get better acclimatised when you’re going up via this route.
On the other hand, the 479-km Manali-Leh highway is what you’ll hear stories about. Of landslides, monstrous mountain passes, bone-jarring roads and breathlessness. Post-Manali, you’ll climb the 3979-metre Rohtang Pass — usually a filthy place with either an overload of tourists or muck or both — and the first night’s stay will be at Keylong. The first day’s ride will give you a good idea as to what riding in the mountains is all about. The next day’s ride can be towards Camp Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) aka Sarchu, where your body struggles to cope with the drop in oxygen levels at 4290 metres (more on AMS in a bit). And it’s only just begun. After three tiring days on the road, after traversing the difficult 4890-metre Bara-lacha La pass, the sand-logged More plains, the fearsome 5328-metre Tanglang La pass and hundreds of kilometres of the worst roads (roads?) you can imagine, your bleary eyes will see a board that reads ‘Welcome to Leh’. Phew.
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