The high-altitude road trip from Manali to Leh is a two-day journey along dangerous mountain roads cutting through harsh and inclement trans-Himalayan terrain. En route, you are rewarded with ethereal scenery, a quaint mountain culture and a travelling experience paralleled by few other journeys.
Imagine traversing 487 km along a rain-washed, avalanche-eroded and precariously narrow road across gravity defying mountain passes, all the while braving nature in its most sublime yet treacherous avatar. That, in a nutshell, is what the great crossing from Manali to Leh is all about. Two full days of exposing yourself to the perilous outdoors, testing your nerves, motoring skills, patience and determination. And at the end of it all, finding yourself cruising into the ridge-lined lunar valley of Leh, beckoning weary travellers like the mythical Shangri La of the mountains. Sounds like your cup of tea? Then buckle up!
Five dizzying mountain passes stand along the road between Manali and Leh, ranging between 13,000-17,500 ft. No prizes for guessing, this is one high road. Conventionally travelled from Manali to Leh, this road can also be coursed in the reverse direction (often the choice of people who have either flown directly into Leh or taken the alternate road into the valley from Srinagar). However, it is advised and recommended that you opt for the former route if possible, as the uphill journey also helps you gradually acclimatise to the heights of Ladakh (those flying into Leh often complain of headaches and lack of sleep on their first night in town).
Leaving Manali, the first (and relatively calm) part of your journey takes you across Rohtang Pass, where you leave the hordes of weekend tourists behind and journey into the rain shadow area toward the town of Keylong. From here, you cross a series of mountains until you reach the icy gully of Baralacha La, where the adventure really begins.
Crossing Baralacha La, the road climbs and descends along innumerable craggy ranges, passing several unique geographical wonders, such as the infamous Gata Loops with 21 hairpin bends, the passes of Nakee La and Lachulung La and the pancake flat More Plains, before making a final push to the rare heights of Tanglang La at 17,500 ft. Clearing the high pass, the road gradually descends into the Leh Valley and winds through scenic mountain terrain for another 120 km via Upshi and Karu before entering the town of Leh.
This article is an excerpt from our 50 Great Adventures travel guide. It was first published in 2014 and has been updated since then.