The Manali - Leh highway : A visual journey through the landscape
A journey along the Manali - Leh highway is bound to be one of the most exciting, adventurous and visually stunning journeys anywhere in the world. The route traverses through some of the highest mountain passes in the world, crossing the Pir Panjal, Great Himalaya and the Zanskar ranges.
The road, traversing through these mountain ranges, takes the traveler to a stunning array of landscapes. The lush alpine forests and grasslands of the upper Kullu valley, the scrubby slopes of the Lahaul region, the snow capped peaks of the Great Himalaya, the ochre mountains of Kiling sarai, the grasslands of the Sarchu plans, the sand blasted anthill slopes leading to Pang, vast rolling Morey plains bowl-like and fringed by low mountains, and finally the comforting descent to the Indus valley towards the first of the many beautiful Ladakhi villages leading to Leh.
Manali to Rothang La : The lush slopes south of the Pir Panjal
Out of Manali the road climbs up the south slope of the Pir Panjal range. Initially the road follows the Beas river upstream, with the mountains on either side closing in. The mountains have steep rocky faces with numerous waterfalls streaming down and with pine trees and other vegetation clinging on to the slopes wherever they can.
A series of switchbacks take the road up to Gulaba and then to Marhi. At this point the tree line has all but disappeared and we are left with lush grassy slopes with the snow capped peaks of the Pir Panjal range in the background. The most notable of the peaks is the majestic twin peaks, the Gyephang, to the left of the Rothang pass.
The climb up to the Rothang Pass is spectacular with wonderful views of the lush valley below and of majestic snow capped peaks all around.
Rothang La - Keylong - BaralachLa : In the rain shadow of the Pir Panjal.
That the Pir Panjal range forms an effective barrier against the monsoon clouds is evident from the moment one crosses the Rothang pass. The landscape on the other side, the Lahaul region, is visibly less luxuriant, the mountain slopes are dry, mostly barren with a few patches of scrubby vegetation scattered here and there. Only along the river banks do we get to see clumps of trees and patches of lush farmlands.
Whatever the region lacks in the form of lush vegetation it makes up for it by the presence of magnificent snow capped peaks which loom all around. Nowhere this is more evident than in Keylong, the district headquarters of the Lahaul region.
It is worth noting here at the Lahaul region is hemmed between the Pir Panjal and the Great Himalaya mountain ranges. As the road follows the Bhaga river towards the Great Himalaya range, one can feel the landscape changing slowly. The village of Darcha is the last permanent settlement on this route and from here onwards the landscape is starkly different with scree and boulder strewn slopes with no visible green cover.
At the BaralachLa pass we cross the Great Himalaya range. The pass is located at an altitude of 4900m, conveniently low, considering the fact that it crosses the greatest and the highest mountain range in the world.
BaralachLa - Sarchu - LachulungLa : Ochre mountains and the Sarchu plains.
The descent from BaralachLa brings forth another stunning change in the landscape. The dull grey scree slopes are replaced with spectacular ochre mountains powdered with a little snow on top and laced at the edges with a dark reddish hue. The road goes around a swampy basin and climbs down towards the Sarchu plains.
The Sarchu Plains, is a high altitude (4300m) grassy plain forming the valley system between the Great Himalaya and Zanskar ranges. The Yunam river cuts through the Sarchu plains forming a deep, wide canyon in the middle of the grasslands. At the far end of these plains lie the Sarchu camp, consisting of numerous tented camps providing hot food and accommodation to weary travelers.
Passing Sarchu, the road continues north through the Tsarap valley (the Yunam river now takes on the Tsarap name) and arrives at the infamous Gata loops. The Gata loops are a series of 21 switchbacks (hairpin bends) carved out of a massive scree slope of the Zanskar range. The loops take the road from an altitude of about 4200m all the way up to 4700m over a span of 10km. The slopes have a scrubby vegetation here and it is not uncommon to see herds of Blue mountain sheep (Bharal) grazing here.
After the Gata Loops the road climbs up a steady slope towards the Nakeela pass. On this stretch keep a look out for the mountains on the far (right) side of the road, they'll have steep cliffs with a trail precariously penciled across it. Even from far it looks a scary proposition to tackle that path.
Anyway, after the Nakeela pass (4965m/16290ft), the road dips for about 300m towards the Whiskey Nullah campsite before climbing up once again towards the Lachulung La pass (5065m/16616ft). The climb up the Lachulung La is nothing spectacular but it opens up to a whole new world on the other side.
Lachulung La - Pang - Morey Plains - Tanglang La : Across the Zanskar Plateau.
After Lachulung La the landscape once again changes dramatically. The road snakes its way down through a narrow canyon with the Lachulung Lungpa stream running right beside the road. Eventually the canyon opens up to reveal an even more dramatic landscape. Extraordinary shapes, chiseled by the elements, jut out of the sandy mountain sides. These shapes appear mostly in clusters, some looking like anthills while some other clusters look as if they are pieces from a chess set.
The road eventually leads to Pang. A large tented settlement providing food and accommodation to visitors. There is also a large army transit camp located in Pang.
Out of Pang the road climbs up a hill and then the landscape opens up into the Morey plains. Situated at about 4500m, it is a dramatic flat stretch of land about 45km long and 20km wide, fringed by low hills. On a clear day with a splattering of a few puffy clouds it can look quite beautiful up there. Occasionally one can spot a Tibetan wild asses, Kiang, grazing the plains here and maybe even a red tailed fox or two.
At the end of the Morey plains, the road climbs up towards the Tanglang La pass (5350m/17500ft). It is a straight gradual slope up a table top mountain. The view from the top can be quite spectacular with a birds eye view of the Morey plains below and a panoramic view snow capped peaks in the distance.
Tanglang La to Leh : Down to the Indus valley and the heart of Ladakh
From Tanglang La the road descends steeply towards the Indus valley. Soon you'll come across the first signs of human habitation since Darcha and then the first Ladakhi villages of Rumtse, Sasoma and Gya.
The highway meets the Indus valley at Upshi, and from here onwards its a smooth ride along the Indus river to Leh.