Having tackled the legendary tour from Manali to Leh, I’m convinced it’s a bucket list must for all. I could write a million words about the experience, and they wouldn’t do it justice. This is one epic adventure, which has to be enjoyed in the flesh. While many are drawn to Northern India by dreams of crossing “The Highest Road in the World” (5328m), the journey is so much more than a chance to witness a world record…
The 450km Manali-to-Leh Highway is notoriously dangerous, offering a thrill ride like no other. The brave at heart (and the naive, like me) put their mettle to the test, as they trudge through this unpredictable path. It’s a knuckle-biter of the ultimate kind, with landslides and avalanches causing a constant threat. The passage is only navigable during the summer months, as it’s generally buried under 12 metres of snow at other times of the year. Having said that, it’s pretty darn dangerous all year round.
During our road trip, Ben and I spotted one seriously lucky school bus. Its breaks had failed whilst on a steep, windy decent. To stop the bus from rolling over a cliff and plummeting towards catastrophe, the quick-thinking driver had crashed it into a razor-sharp curb. The rickety vehicle had been packed with dozens of Tibetan children. In the blink of an eye, a terrible tragedy could’ve unfolded. Instead, a hero saved many lives. Unfortunately, not everyone’s so lucky. When Ben and I finally plucked up the courage to look down the side of the cliffs, we came across a forlorn “truck cemetery”. What falls down the mountain, stays down the mountain. It was a sobering sight – enough to make my mouth go dry and the hairs on my neck stand to attention.
Needless to say, drivers who take on the Manali-Leh Highway must have their wits about them at all times. The passage is plagued by bottomless drop-offs, blind corners on hairpin turns, colossal rocks teetering on the edge of descent, and fickle weather patters (mist, snow, torrential rain, dust storms, snow storms, blinding sunlight – all in a day). To top things off, the road regularly becomes as narrow as your car – eek!
While Ben and I had regular “day-n-night-mares” about road accidents, the striking backdrop regularly brought us back to a happy place. Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen – so divine, it felt as though us mere mortals shouldn’t have access to it. Surely, we’d stumbled across Mother Nature’s finest playground for the gods by mistake? Like clowns in a carnival game, our mouths were stretched wide open, stuck in a state of dumfounded delight. Our heads were on constant rotation, swinging from left to eight, trying to soak up every picture perfect moment. This place was stupidly stunning.
Throughout our journey, Ben and I were spectators to an ever-changing tapestry of dramatic landscapes. As we entered the realms of Marhi and the Rohtan Pass, we were transported to the Swiss Alps – on steroids. Wild horses chewed away merrily on golden coneflowers and emerald grass, which blanketed the sweeping hills. Raging streams laced the mountains like a network of veins transporting the purest water on planet earth into the lush depths of the valley. Pausing to create colossal pools, the water took on an iridescent turquoise colour which was utterly hypnotising. Stunned by the natural beauty before me, I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to keep breathing. The location was so heavenly, Ben and I nearly jumped out of our Landy and danced under the sun like Maria in The Sound of Music. But, the highest road in the world was calling. It was time to move on.
As we edged closer to the Promised Land (Leh), Ben and I encountered a wild range of dessert scenes. At times, they were reminiscent of Petra. Sandstone shards stretched into the air like skyscrapers; narrow caverns offered a multidimensional stage for the sun’s rays and shadows to dance upon. At other times, it felt as though we were touring the Grand Canyon, with mammoth sections of land falling away towards the earth’s core. Then there were the parts we couldn’t compare to anything else, like the curious termite mound structures, which magically stayed erect on the side of soft sand dunes. I was convinced they were home to thousands of troglodyte aliens, which swarmed the mountains by night. They were freaky!
As we crossed the Tranglang La Pass (a.k.a. World’s Highest Road), the landscape transformed into a postcard of the Himalayas – charcoal mountains lathered in powder-fine snow, propped up against an impossibly blue sky. It was simply epic. On our return trip, we crossed this same passage by night. It was an eerie experience, with a solid wall of moonlit ice on one side of our Landy and a bottomless, black abyss on the other. Funnily enough, we actually felt safer driving at night. Like horses with blinders, we couldn’t fear what lay beyond our vision. Plus, the roads were a lot quieter under the cover of darkness.
After crossing three of the world’s highest passages along the Manali-Leh Highway, all competing with Everest Base Camp in terms of height above sea level, we finally arrived in Leh. A Mecca for international hippies and off-the-beaten-track tourists, our stay in Leh was like living on Mars. Nestled at the base of a colossal terracotta “crater”, this township felt otherworldly. It was an oasis in the desert, with sandstone buildings, rocky forts and dusty backstreet streets offset by thriving crops, elegant canopies and vibrant greenery. One local fondly referred to Leh as “Moonland” because it’s so high up, one can practically reach out and touch the moon. There’s a distinct air of peaceful spirituality about the place, with Buddhist prayer flags, Bhutanese-style buildings and hundreds of stupas adding soul to the streets. Inspired by a rich mix of cultural, ethnic and religious influences, Leh is like no other place on earth.
While the magnificent landscapes gripped our adventurous hearts and fuelled our insatiable imaginations, it was the camaraderie along the Manali-Leh Highway which truly lifted our spirits. At random and designated points along the slow-going road, travellers were swapping advice about everything from camp sites and camera gear to altitude sickness and motor mechanics. Whether overlanders were travelling by tourist taxi, bicycle, Royal Enfield, truck, bus, Jeep or some other vehicle, a friendly wave, warm smile and hearty chinwag were waiting around every corner. Sharing our thirst for adventure and passion for the great outdoors, everyone traversing The Highest Road in the World seemed like friends we simply hadn’t met yet.