The road is treacherous, seasonally closing with the first snows to fall in the arid region, often near the end of October. There are several, spectacular high mountain passes along the way connecting Leh, Ladahk with the more temperate but still massively elevated Manali in H.P. The road’s surface varies from deathly smooth freshly paved sections with no shoulder and falling away edges (near Dharcha) to stand-on-the-pegs rough rock (near Rumste) to plow-through fine gravel that, mixed with an inverted “water bar” of sort (or a small dug trench to drain water across a road, rather than the usual hump), can easily send you over the handle bars, as I did just started a relieved decent down a particular pass (Taglang La).
Eurpoean cyclist are among those that opt to pedal the distance, with a handful of stops available in the summer to breakup the distances. I stopped in each Rumste, Pang, Sarchu and Keylang though Pateso and Dharcha are among a few others that are detailed (and for which I don’t recall the level of services in Patseo (Patsio); looks empty in November. Goods carriers queued before crossing the bridge at Dharcha, suggesting even food stalls as long the road remained open0.
Begining from Leh, the passes are (in meters):
If continuing to Losar at the single earth colored building (nearly impossible to spot) at Gramphoo instead of passing over the Rohtang La for Manali, you’ll instead cross Kunzum La (4551). There are no services between Tandi and Losar, Tandi having a petrol station while Losar has only three guesthouses and no petrol. (Note: The next petrol station would be Kaza with intermittent power outages that result in fuel being available for as long as days.) The government house of some sorts at Batal (between Gromphoo and Losar) just before crossing the bridge looked dreadfully quite and still in early November.
On the way for Pang and with a later than planned start out of Leh, I take a selfie at the checkpoint in Upshi. Having passed through before on a trekking trip to Rumste, I’d figured I knew where the police men where stationed, and thus nearly barreled past their actual post, stopping to sound of a loud whistle.
Loaded down and my first pass outside of Rumste, I stop at the top of Taglang on the Leh Manali highway for only a few minutes before I realize how cold it is high, and in the shade. My fingers in gloves are freezing, and it takes some work to restart the bike in the higher altitude. I learn a quick lesson; don’t lolly gag or quit your motor in these conditions.
Canteen cum Hotel, Pang, on the Leh to Manali road. The yak-dung stove in the center is side to burn at only 1/3 the temperate of wood, and a water bowl on top adds moisture to the dry air. The four day beds along the rooms perimeter also server as couches for drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes in the evening as passing through good carrier drivers, a few locals, and a couple of military men from the nearby base stop in to unwind.
Leaving Pang after a brisk night inside the local canteen. Many of the truck drivers that stop through for whiskey as well as locals overnight between the front, yak-dung warmed kitchen area and another quite chilly bunk room. Sleeping in full gear on one of the four day beds the comprised the seating area, I had talked my way out of the unheated room for the room with the owner and family.
Taking a break between Pang and Sarchu to admire the loose slope and ensuring drop. That the drop here is on the east side (and too, morning sun), I am on the north side of the Lachalung La (5056m) and indeed, not particularly far out of Pang heading south.
One of about 30 similar structures bordering the roadway in Sarchu, this kind woman ran a small guesthouse (really one large mattress inside) along with a kerosene stove to boil water for nescafe coffee and make egg omelets for a quick breakfast after Pang and Lachalung La. With no way to fill the now-empty plastic cans attached to the back of the motorbike, she is impressed with the containers so much that I decide to part with one. Purchased in Leh and originally used to transport some sort of cooking oil, those that with the smaller 13 L fuel tanks use two of these to carry petrol, adding range.
One of about 30 similar structures, this woman operates a “hotel” and offers coffee and food from the roadside as I pass through Sarchu mid-morning of day two of the Leh to Manali Highway. Outside, it is warm in the sun, with a steady cool wind that reminds you of what the night can bring if left exposed.
Baralacha La (4980m), between Sarchu and Dharcha. Pausing to admire the snow capped peaks in the background (likely 6400-6700m), the driver of a tourist vehicle waited while his Indian fares ran off a few hundred yards from the road to touch and play in the snow. I would have been heading west now, and into the Lahul Valley. Patseo is just further at the end of a long decent where, at the bottom, near a lone building, I spot what I take for a foreigner standing along the side of the road holding a motorbike helmet. He doesn’t wave, or thumb, and already I am overloaded and unpowered and sunlight fading; I instinctively don’t stop. Crossing a river at the last of the descent, I begin a climb of switchbacks up the other side, all the while trying to connect why I didn’t stop, and what in the hell he was doing out here. From Patseo to Dharcha, it is a long, empty stretch.
Coming into Dharcha I cross a bouncy steel bridge between batches of trucks queuing for their turn. The valley is green and jurassic with small waterfalls from the cliff faces. Here to is immaculate smooth pavement, though at places ahead the few feet of the edges have fallen into the valley deep below, leaving unmarked and surprising hole (and subsequent drops) for the careless. Inside corners too are already washing as water trickles across.
The best road in India for this time being: A shot of the fresh pavement underneath me from Dharcha to not quite Keylong, but don’t tell me it ends; so nice! Just mind sections were its fallen away and soon to be eroded.
A shot to highlight the amount of work that goes into creating passable corners. Guard rails are introduced in brief sections. Large concrete blocks may help keep a vehicle in, but unlikely a bus or bike. Reaching Keylang at the end of second travel day. To appreciate and trail the local bus zipping and leaning around these corners after being overtaken by it excites my morning of the way out of town (though I have to finally give up chase to avoid soot).
A long way down. Keylang seems a milder, wintery cool that starts earlier in the evening, adding an intermediate fleece hour along with conifers, and if I had to guess, apples on the south side of the Bhag river.
1 of a series of 4. A person walks around the corner of the dusty and narrow stretch of Leh-Manali Hwy between Tandi and Gramphoo (post the Glacier).
2 of 4. The person is now closer, between us and the last truck.
3 of 4. A bit closer but hard to see as the open truck continues past.
4 of 4. The truck takes the corner out into the sunlight while our walker friend marshals on.
After accidentally climbing to the top of Rotang La from the Gramphoo side (rather than continuing to Losar), I find a comical circus atmosphere of Indians in funky bright ski suits sitting on the rear racks of ATV’s mushing them up to a glacier, skis in hand. I follow but become stuck in a wet bog. Further ahead, hundreds of cars haves parked along a reasonably flat area and vendors hock pepsi and snacks. I continue on after an hour or so, realizing its best to go on to Manali for the night then work back over tomorrow. On this Manali side (pictured), the road spagettis down and where difficult rock was encountered, engineers simply tapered the road to a single, indeterminate lane. Along with hang gliders passing overhead from a couple of turns, the road it bumper to bumper with taxi innova type cars that bring the indian tourists up and down by the packed car load.
The south side of the Rotang La offers fauna and beautiful winding roads; the north side is stark, with traffic oddly building up at the top, the first number of cars seen in days. Then at its crest, you realize that folks from other places in india (perhaps Dehli) visit in droves to see snow: It is a carnival like atmosphere, with ATVs hauling folks up in full ski gear to the top of a small patch of snow. Vendors offer colas and snacks. And all the way down toward Manali, taxi’s zip up and down the hairy swithbacks, single car width in places. A hang gliding operation periodically luaches a person directly from a switchback, clearing the road and traffic below by only a few feet for a ten minutes, piloted ride. I watched the enterprise for several minutes (with no interest in doing it myself).
Climbing the Rotang La, I miss my turn off down a sparse jeep trail to Losar and instead crest the summit; it would be too late to rejoin the route a good hours work below, and instead take my time atop the pass and later run the remaining 30-50 km to Manali, HP. A popular destination with Indians and foreigners alike, the grand pines of Manali offer a welcome of green. Even the humidity is higher and dust lower. Tourist geared restaurants offer a fine chicken tandoori meal with lots of rice, and luck up with a bargain on my accommodation. During dinner, the Carpenters recording of “Top of the World” offers a thoughtful and quirk distraction.