Ladakh The Hard Way: By Road

By Mridula Dwivedi

A traffic jam on the road to Leh - photos by Mridula Dwivedi
A traffic jam on the road to Leh – photos by Mridula Dwivedi

There are many ways to reach Ladakh. Some brave souls do it by motorcycle. There are even more noble spirits, who manage it by cycling. I cannot say much about these, apart from that it will provide an excellent opportunity for photography, whatever may be the hardships.

Reaching Ladakh is not so easy unless you decide to fly both ways. But then, as a friend says if you fly you miss everything in between. Still, there are two air travel carriers – Indian Airlines (government-owned) and Jet Airways (private firm) that offer regular flights from all parts of the country to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The flights cost something like 12,500 ($284) Indian rupees for a return ticket, and I consider it pretty expensive.

The more mundane way to reach Ladakh is by road. It is cheap, it offers fantastic views on the Manali-Leh highway but it is so tiring. There are two ways to reach Ladakh by road. One is the Srinagar-Leh highway and the other the Manali-Leh highway. We decided to go by the Manali-Leh highway, as Manali is closer to New Delhi.

Delhi to Manali: On a Supposedly Luxury Coach

From New Delhi, Manali is a 16-hour (585 kilometer, 336 miles, but better roads) bus journey, which can be done by government-run buses or services offered by private operators. The government-run buses are uncomfortable and they have a 3X2 seating arrangement. The private operators claim to have 2X2 luxury buses but more often than not, they turn out to be not so luxurious.

My bus seat on the Delhi-Manali highway had various lumps and it refused to recline properly. And I was paying a premium price (Rupees 500, $11.50) for traveling in a luxury bus! There are some top end AC Volvo buses that ply on the same route but they cost even more and do not fit in my budget. We stayed for two days in Manali and then started for Leh.

The Spitok Monastery, set in one of the many splendid vistas on the way to Leh
The Spitok Monastery, set in one of the many splendid vistas on the way to Leh.

Manali to Leh: A Test of Endurance

There are many tour operators in Manali and all will do the booking for jeeps or buses from Ladakh to Leh. The government buses also ply on the route. The buses take a night halt at Kelong, whereas Jeeps can complete the entire stretch of 475 kilometers (295 miles) on really difficult roads at one go.

We did not pre-book our tickets to Leh. We asked around in a few travel agents and found that prices could vary by a margin of 200 ($4.50) rupees from shop to shop. A jeep ticket can cost anything between 800 to 1100 rupees ($18 to $25).

The back seats cost less, for the obvious reason that you get really danced around on the route if you occupy one. The middle and the front seats cost the same in a jeep. One can also book an entire jeep but it is costly at rupees 10,000 ($ 227) upwards for one way, then you might as well fly. If one desires, the jeep option is also available with a night halt.

Dowdy But Reliable

I developed a new respect for the humble ‘Tata Sumo’ jeep on this journey. In the city, this made-in-India Tata Sumo is one of the dowdiest vehicles you can ever set your foot in. Tavera from Chevrolet or Innova from Toyota is considered classier.

But make the terrain tough and it is the Tata Sumo that plies in the highest numbers. It is meant to take three people in the middle row, two in front and four in the back. The taxi operators take two to three in the front, four in the middle, and four in the back. The journey begins at 2 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m., making it 18 hours in a row.

The dowdy but reliable Tata Sumo near Ladakh.
The dowdy but reliable Tata Sumo near Ladakh.

When we started at 2 a.m., I was pretty excited. My husband, a friend, and I were quashed in the middle row with an unknown gentleman occupying the unofficial fourth seat.

After some 50 kilometers (31 miles) of traveling, we reached Rohtang Pass, from where the snow line starts. It was a moonlit night and the entire landscape looked eerie and deserted through my sleep-filled and dopey eyes. Both my husband and I have motion sickness and we take medicine for it that leaves us completely zonked.

The next time I became fully aware of my surroundings, it was already daylight. The jeep had stopped at a cluster of small tea huts and without brushing my teeth I had my fill.

Another two hours, and we had started climbing up and as far as the eye could see, it was snow all around. For a long time, we kept going through this beautiful route without stopping anywhere and that meant no opportunity to take photographs.

Ladakh’s Photo Opportunity

Luckily at one place, due to a huge army vehicle and a truck coming face to face, there was a traffic jam. We were asked to stop by army personnel and I welcomed the opportunity to stretch my legs and to use my camera.

By 12 noon I started feeling hungry and by two in the afternoon I was positively desperate. I was unclear what was dominating me more, hunger or sleep. We later crossed the highest pass on the route — Baralacha-La, at 16,050 feet (4892 meters). Finally, at around 2:30 p.m. we arrived at the food tents in Pang.

The food tents in Pang
The food tents in Pang

I was so tired by now that I only know I ate chapatti with vegetables but it left no taste in my mouth. It seemed to me that we had been traveling since eternity and we must be almost there. How mistaken I was!

A Sight to Behold

After lunch, our driver hurried us off. By now I often wondered how tired the jeep driver must be. He had been driving since 2 a.m. and now it was 3:15 p.m. I, for most of the time, was trying to sleep by dropping my head on my husband’s shoulder. And that guy was on the steering wheel negotiating narrow curves that opened to steep falls.

Soon after we started from Pang, our driver took a shortcut through a vast open field. On one side of it was looming a greenish-gray-looking mountain and in the far distance, some wild horses and our jeep was racing through it for at least an hour.

Later we once again started climbing up for a long time and it became increasingly difficult to breathe. Though the climb did not last very long, but by six in the evening, I was willing to believe any place to be Leh.

A jewelry booth in Leh
A jewelry booth in Leh

We stopped for tea around 6:30 in the evening and the place was just 50 kilometers from Leh. From here on, the way was much flatter and the roads better. Still, we arrived in Leh dead tried at 8:10 in the evening. We quickly found a hotel, dumped our luggage and started looking for a restaurant to eat. My head had started playing music inside it and breath was funny because of the altitude by now.

Is there a better way?

Some may find it better to travel by road and to break the journey into two days and take a night halt. Government buses are much cheaper than the jeep, at Rupees 525 ($12) this season. We took a government bus back from Leh.

We started at 5:00 in the morning and I was sitting on the window and looking out. By now I have mastered the art of taking pictures with my digital camera on a moving bus. Though we were simply retracing our route, it was still difficult to believe that the road could contain a bus, it was so narrow. Not only was it narrow, the curves seemed impossible to negotiate. But the state transport driver did all that and more.

At one point in our journey, our way was blocked by a Tata Sumo as it got stuck on that part of the road where water was pouring in the form of a small stream from the melting snow, which we had encountered at many other places.

A Few Anxious Moments

At this spot, whatever tricks the driver of the Sumo tried, the vehicle refused to budge. It crossed my mind that we might be forced to spend the night at this freezing spot. After watching the proceedings for a while our bus driver asked us all to get in and to go to the back of the bus and stand there in a group. He would try to cross the patch.

Masks for sale at a shop in Leh, Ladakh
Masks for sale at a shop in Leh

My heart was thudding in my mouth as the bus lurched forward swaying crazily. After a few anxious moments, which seemed like ages then, we were out in the clear. I am so glad this happened only once in the entire journey.

Did we find the bus journey less tiring than the jeep journey? I don’t think so. The bus moves much more slowly. Thus, the total time spent on the road increases. So, while going to Leh we reached somewhere the same night, on the return journey we managed to reach only up to Kelong by 9:00 p.m., and had to put up in a small hotel.

The next day it took us another six hours to reach Manali. We crossed Rohtang pass again and it was beyond recognition, full of vehicles and food tents and crowded and littered to the hilt. We even met a traffic jam on the way.

The end result of the bus journey was once again we were dead tired, so much so that it made an ordinary person like me to turn philosophical about my existence or the continuation of it! Still, if I have to do it all again, I will try doing it by bicycle. If I do it by road again, for variety I will try the Leh-Srinagar highway the next time around. A more sensible approach could be to travel one way by road and fly the other way round.

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