Road from Leh to Manali is perhaps the most popular route for bikers in India. For many reasons it is perfect for an adventurous ride, but it is not an easy road to travel. Leh to Manali is a 474 km ride through one of the most unique landscapes across the country.
For a stretch of around 250-300 km there was not a single house except for a couple of makeshift tea points along the road. The condition is harsh and not conducive for permanent settlement. It is one of the most barren and isolated places you'll ever see in India. Travelling through the isolated landscapes was a new experience as I am more used to daily chaos and hustle-bustle of big city life. Here you find yourself alone in the midst of unprecedented vastness, just you and the mountains. I felt so liberated. But at the same time, the experience of it was gruesome, and later, I was happy to be back to civilization after almost a 15 hours drive.
Mini buses for Manali leaves Leh around 2 am in the morning. There are no big vehicles or buses because of the precarious road conditions. It was a bit inconvenient checking out of the hotel so early in the morning. My guest house owner warned me of not getting too close with stray dogs at night as they scavenged by the roadside and do not want to be bothered. He handed me an iron rod to keep away dogs but luckily I didn't encounter any on my on my way to the main bazaar.
When the bus left, it was still very dark and Leh was sleeping. It was few minutes after we left the check-post at Leh that the sky burst and a drizzle turned into a heavy rain. I was in the front seat with the driver, and we could hardly see a thing. I was worried and looked at the driver to see how he was holding up. He didn't seem to be bothered at all. He slowly raised volume of the music, higher than the torrents of rain, and hummed along with it. Sometimes it would wake the passengers but I thought he was more concerned about staying awake. I soon went to sleep but when I woke up, we were traversing through snow peaked mountains. The rain had stopped but the cold woke up most of the travellers as we searched through our bags for warm clothes.
Soon, the sun had risen and we were driving through a high altitude valley. The sun lit the valley and turned the grasses to golden brown; few herds of sheep and goats grazed in the valley. It was a priceless moment. We soon stopped at a small place for breakfast. There were 3-4 makeshift shops that serve tea and some basic food like paranthas and maggi. That was the last stop we made in a long time.
Later we were traversing through giant mountains and deep gorges. Along the road we came across lots of bikers. I was surprised to find some women bikers groups too. It would have taken a lot of courage to travel in India alone, let alone taking a bike to Leh from Manali. I also spotted people travelling on small caravan and it gave me a thought. Especially when you are on a road trip to a place like Leh, you could stop anywhere, stay there for a few days, then start again. Here you own the place as much as anyone else.
There are no hotels midway but in the lower valley, there are few camping sites set up by businessmen. Most bikers stopped here for the night before continuing their journey to Leh or Manali.
I find the idea of biking for 15 hours exhaustive yet acceptable, but the idea of riding a bicycle from Manali to Leh didn't even occur to me until I saw a lone guy riding one. He had some of his belongings dangling from his bike. His face was tanned like roasted meat and had braided locks. I couldn't imagine how a man so small, when compared to the indomitable mountains could have a will so big. At the end he had nothing to gain, except for the sheer pleasure and fond memories. But this alone is enough to push oneself to the limits for many travellers.
On my trips I have seen crazy stuff and I have no doubt that when it comes to travel, we Indians are a lot more conservative. We think travel as being luxurious. We could learn a few things from foreign travellers, when it comes to the spirit of travelling and adventure.
Mountains have always been considered sacred by many religions. We would hear stories of monks and sages disappearing to the mountains for meditation to find inner peace. When you drive though 15 hours on the mountains, you begin to have a lot of respect for it. We had lunch at the base of a snow covered mountains at a place called Zing-Zing-Bar, at a height 4,320 m. Though the food was simple, we had a sumptuous meal. The place also offered lodging facility in case of emergencies.
From then on, we began to see a lot more of greenery. The driver looked over his shoulder and said we've entered Himachal Pradesh. The road seemed endless and the mountains unconquerable. The greenery came to full view as we meandered down to Keylong, the biggest town between Leh and Manali. The town cling on to a steep hill but I instantly fell in love with the place. Most travellers stop at Keylong on their way to Manali or Leh.
By late evening, we had already started climbing the Rohtang Pass. The mountain loomed like a giant barricade. It is one of most precarious and coldest mountain passes in India. Thick clumps of fog came out of nowhere and covered the mountains. When we were at the peak, we could only see few metres in front. The wind was cold and unforgiving. It was summer and the sun stayed up long enough but when we reached Manali it was already dark.
We have arrived at a green valley and to the chaos and the life of a bigger town. If travelling should be about a little solitude to reflect oneself, then this journey was worth every inch and couldn't have been more exciting.
Leh to Manali distance: 473.9 km
Leh to Manali by road time: 17 hours approximately
Mini bus fare: Rs.1300