The thought of a motorcycle ride to Ladakh is not for the faint hearted. With a bit of resilient nature and will power, you can easily conquer the ride through the mighty Himalayas. There are two ways to head to Ladakh by road; via Srinagar and from Manali. Either ways, you’ll get to see beauty at its heavenly best. If you’re riding or driving to Ladakh through the Manali-Leh highway, this guide is for you.
The roads are open only from June to September which means you can ride only during these months. Because of heavy snowfall between October and May, you are left with the only option of taking a flight to Ladakh and absolutely no means of travel by road (for your own safety). With Himalayas on its south-west and Karakoram range on its north-west, this Tibetan region has one of the most dangerous roads in the world – it’s a bikers Mecca.
My husband and I started this trip without a clue of how a solo couple travel is especially going to be on a motorbike trip through one of the scariest roads in the world. Though we had planned the entire route, little did we plan on the places to stay. The ride took us about four days to reach Leh, while we stayed in beautiful Swiss tents along the way.
To begin with, Rohtang Pass is a perfect riding exercise for those who’d like to experience how the rest of the journey is going to be. The road conditions at Rohtang are quite well-maintained but there has been cases. Plenty of accidents take place at Rohtang; a reason its called pile of corpses. At 13,000 feet, you will not feel the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) yet, especially after seeing multitudes of tourists playing with the snow and dotting the pass top. However, the weather is still unpredictable at the top.
The best part is, most tourists do not go beyond or to the other side of Rohtang but here is when the exciting part begins. You pass through isolated villages but still each house has a little corner that has tables spilling out of their compound. For an heavy local meal, stop at Koksar or Tandi.
As you ride and after a couple of hours, you hit a square red arc and a board that says ‘Welcome to Keylong‘ – its more like ‘Welcome to Civilisation’. There is a motorbike repair shop just a little further to the arc. A little more further, you hit Jispa where you can stay in for the night.
Set for the next day, you will still enjoy the ride through Darcha and towards the gorgeous Bara-lacha-La (pass). This is one of my favorite roads as the winding roads are flanked by mountains of ice. This is where I found my world of Narnia.
While you’re here look out for Suraj Tal, a lake that is completely or semi-frozen depending on the time you visit. There is no sign board that says you have reached the Baralacha-La pass but the fluttering prayer flags make even the atheist stop by for a silent prayer; after all the mountains are your only God for the next few days.
Many riders decide to continue beyond Sarchu but it is advisable to stop and bed-in to enjoy a slow travel with less journey stress.
The winding and cracked roads from Sarchu can add onto the altitude sickness, that make many people sick at this stage. The solution to this is to remain calm, sit for a cup of tea at a stall and take sips of water to avoid dehydration.
The ride will take you amid pristine beauty; each has distinct features. The Gata Loops,a stretch of 21 hair pins, can give you a perfect-postcard picture from the top – an epic picture of the 21 twisting roads. As we rode to the top, my eyes stumbled upon a pile of water bottles on the left-hand corner of the last bend. Legend says that decades ago, a truck driver and a cleaner were driving to Leh from Manali, when their truck broke down on the loop. The driver opted to walk to the nearest village seeking help while the cleaner stayed back to watch the truck that was loaded with valuable goods. Meanwhile, the weather conditions turned bizarre closing roads from the both the ends to stop any vehicles because of heavy snowfall. Due to this, the driver also could only return to the truck after a week, to find the decomposed body of the cleaner who passed away because of hunger, thirst and weather with absolutely no help. Apparently, many passers-by have seen a beggar pleading for water on the loops, and if nobody offers water, they suffer with AMS or accidents. For peace, the locals of Manali and Leh have made a small memorial. Perhaps these ghost stories of Ghata Loops were created by somebody hallucinating because of the altitude?
After Ghata Loops, be prepared for the two pass Nakila Pass and Lachung La Pass at about 16,000 feet. Stop by for a meal in Pang. In case, you are feeling dizzy, most stalls offer beds to sleep in for the night at a very minimal rate. It’s safe to keep your options open even though it may not be the best. After a bit, the road leads to the beautiful Moreh Plains.
While I was glad to be back on the plains, it began to drizzle. What a perfect way to enjoy different shades of weather through mountains, high altitude lakes and plains. Moreh plains is home to the migrating Changpa nomads who live in tents dotted in an isolated corner of the vast plain. The Changpa’s graze goats and yaks, but there are hardly any settlements in the region most of the time.
Many riders choose to ride directly from Moreh Plains to Leh through Upshey, which is a straight road but to enjoy some more of the frozen lake, take a detour (towards the right) to Tsokar. Stay here for the night as you will find guest rooms that has windows facing the beautiful Tsokar lake. During season, you’ll even get to see the black-necked cranes.
With slight snow showers, Tanglang La couldn’t look more beautiful as this is where I did experience snow for the first time. The rugged mountainous terrains majestically sits at an altitude of 17,480 feet. The last leg is to head directly to Leh through a small village of Rumste.
Once you reach Leh, take a few days to settle in, in order to acclimatise. From here, plan for an overnight stay in Pangong Tso via Chang La Pass, day trips to Khardungla (considered as ‘Worlds highest Motorable Road) or even overnight stays on the other side of Khardungla top – Hunder – Nubra Valley.
There is no better way to explore Leh than on a motorbike. It’s been a few months since we returned from the trip and I’m still unsure of what made this journey epic, whether it’s the: ‘Juley! Juley!’ greetings expressed by workers clearing up the ice blocks; soaking in the cool breeze while listening to the Buddhist prayers at Shanti Stupa; witnessing the beautiful white and green lights dancing amid the mountains like an Asian aurora; the joy of completing our 32 Kms white water rafting at Zanskar River in -4 degree; or staying in tents surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Nevertheless, my love and trust for an Enfield is unconditional. The solid built and the rugged nature that rides effortlessly through an expanse of terrain is unmatched when compared to any other motorbike. Respect!
Best Time to Ride to Leh
The best time to start your road trip to Leh is June, as the weather is inviting and you can also enjoy snowfall at times. But if you are an inexperienced rider and not a fan of cool temperatures, your best bet is August during summer.
Day 1: Bangalore – Delhi- Manali
Day 2: Manali- Rohtang Pass- Keylong – Jispa (164 kms)
Day 3: Darcha -ZingZingbar- Baralacha La -Sarchu (90 kms)
Day 4: Sarchu- Gata Loops- Pang- Moreh Plains- TsoKar (130 kms)
Day 5: Tso-Kar -Tanglang La- Leh
Leh- Chang La- Pangong Tso (164 kms)
Leh-South Pullu – Khardung La
You can either courier your bike from your city to Delhi or you can rent a bike from Manali. For courier service, the best are Gati and Blue Dart who will pack and courier the bike on behalf of you. Another option is to rent a bike from Manali. We rented a Royal Enfield Classic 500 from a company called Hardev Motors, located opposite Sita Cottage. We have positive reviews about Hardev Motors as we initially thought to ride to and fro Leh via Manali-Leh highway but as we were to return, the weather conditions turned awful. With an extra fee, Hardev gave us the option of returning the bike in Leh instead of riding back to Manali.
Manali – Apple Cottage is one of the well-known in Manali but we were unhappy with the standard rooms offered to us. Sita Cottage is spartan but worth the price for a huge room and apt if you’re staying in only for the night.
Jispa – Padma Lodge remain one of my favorite tent stays. They have a variety of accommodation options from guest rooms in Standard and deluxe to Swiss tents with attached bathroom. With a little swing in the outdoor sitting area along the lake surrounded by snow capped mountains. Be sure to stay in the Swiss tents as these are also absolutely clean.
Sarchu – Another spacious tent stay enroute Leh is Goldrops Camps. The bright orange roof tents attracts all passers-by.
Tsokar – Tsokar Guesthouse is a little room that offers magnificent views of Tsokar lake and mountains.
Leh – Homestay near Shanthi Stupa and Leh market. The family who stays on the ground floor makes delicious Kashmiri style chicken curry. Prices for rooms are extremely reasonable at INR 800 to 1200 per night and is also conveniently located only few blocks from the city center. In case you are interested, comment here for more details on this lovely homestay.
Tips for Non-Riders
You won’t have to worry about missing out on these magnificent landscapes on the Manali-Leh highway, if you’re not a rider. Take a flight to Delhi, from where you can take an overnight bus to Manali. Consider renting a car from Manali if you’d like to venture on your own or you can hire a taxi that will drive you from Manali all the way till Leh, while you still enjoy the road trip experience.
1) We did not pre-book any of these stays. As you ride, you will find enough of rooms or tents along the Leh-Manali route. The weather at high altitudes can be extremes, especially at nights so carry thick thermals and dress in layers.
2) Stopping by the stalls in small intervals to enjoy a bowl of spicy maggi and piping hot tea is a great way to acclimatise with the altitude.
3) During the ride, I noticed many wrecked trucks on the mountain slopes that may or may not be noticed by the officials. Keep in mind that these roads are sometimes death traps, ride and drive slow. In memory of many deaths from truck drivers to civilians, the Border Road Organisation has created memorials at some places.
4) If you’re riding, leave as early as possible to avoid river crossings on the road paths that can be dangerous as some are quite shallow and ends in a waterfall from the cliff.
Note: The tents, homestays and guestrooms mentioned above are recommended based on personal experiences and were in perfect condition as on June, 2013.
The soldiers living in this risky and fierce weather need a special bow. We realised the intense effort on our way back from Pangong Tso Lake to Leh city at Chang La Pass. The weather was hovering at minus temperatures and it was impossible to ride or even sit idle as a pillion as our toes and fingers were almost blue. Our only rescue were the gentlemen at the army camp who offered us hot tea and fire-lit stove to deal with the harsh weather. Story doesn’t end here. The locals had advised us to continue riding to Leh instead of stopping at the Chang La top but the weather insisted we stop for some warmth. As we started the bike, the engine froze. So in an isolated place with heavy snow, we feared if anyone would come by to help. To our luck, a local family stopped and offered to drop us (and our bike) to the city.
It’s experiences like these that help travelers connect with the locals to better understand their earnest endeavor to lead a simple yet balanced routine. These folks are more than happy to extend an helping hand to strangers. Special thanks and a great karma coming to those with such simple mind.
Have you been on an experience like this before? Write your comments below.