Status of the Manali Leh highway: The Manali Leh highway is now open for traffic for the summer of 2020.
Our journey on the Manali Leh highway was most certainly a turning point in our travel lives. It was a journey that made us fall in love with not just road trips, but with the road itself. It was a perfect culmination of a trip that made us realise that we wanted the road to be our home.
Which brings us to the main question, which is –
Why take this journey on the Manali Leh highway?
By any standard and from any perspective, the journey on the Manali Leh highway has epic written all over it. With roads that open up for only a few months a year, these 470 kilometres from Leh to Manali will test you, scare you, shock you and leave you spellbound. You will believe life is beautiful!
This is our experience of the journey on the Manali Leh highway, going from Leh to Manali by bus. If you don’t want to read through the entire story, you can have a look at this video, then head straight to the Manali Leh road trip FAQs.
Road trip from Leh, Ladakh to Manali
We took this road trip at the beginning of August to return to the lower Himalayas, reach Manali from Leh, Ladakh. It was towards the end of our 3-month travels in the Himalayas, the last three weeks of which were in the Greater Himalayas, at altitudes of over 3000 meters.
Early morning start from the Leh bus stand
It was still dark when we left Leh, crossing places we had visited before – Shey, Thiksey followed by Karu and Upshi. There’s a fork at Upshi. A couple of days back, we had taken the road going towards Tso Moriri. This time we took the turn towards the Manali Leh highway.
Tanglang La – the first and the highest pass of the journey
A couple of hours after Leh, as daylight broke, we realised that all civilisation just vanished. Suddenly, we were on Tanglang La, the mountain pass with its peak at over 5300 m. The first mountain pass of the Manali Leh highway while going from Leh to Manali. This is where we crossed the highest point – of not just this journey, but of our lives!
The view at the top of Tanglang la was spectacular! The entire pass was laid out before us. We were at level with the snow-clad peaks surrounding us. Colourful prayer flags were strung around. A signboard proudly announced that we indeed were at the highest point of the Manali Leh highway. We felt on top of the world!
Itinerary planning tip:
There is an alternate route to join the Manali Leh highway while returning from Ladakh. Taking this alternate route is possible if you have rented a private taxi and Tso Moriri is your last destination to visit in Ladakh. From Tso Moriri, you can head towards another smaller lake called Tso Kar from where a road directly joins the Leh Manali highway.
Right from the start of Tanglang La, we saw striking landforms. At times, the mountains looked like needles rising in the sky, reminding us of the sandcastles we built on the beach as kids. Except that they were gigantic! And this wasn’t really the sand at the beach. These were the mighty Greater Himalayas, withered with age by their only constant companion – the ferocious winds.
Brown, barren and lifeless – was how we would describe the view for most parts of this journey on the Manali Leh highway. Being in the presence of such raw nature – these mountains without as much as a trace of life – was overwhelming.
The human effort that goes into building this road
Only because there was a road here did we have the privilege of experiencing the magnanimity that the journey from Leh to Manali actually is. This thought was even more overwhelming than the landscape surrounding us. This road didn’t get here by magic. Brave men and women had braved the rough weather, toiled hard to create it.
Like this man, we saw from our bus on the Tanglang La. These construction workers come from far off places (mainly, Jharkhand and Nepal) where they have no real employment opportunity. At the end of winter when the roads connecting Leh, Ladakh to Manali, Srinagar and other parts of India open for traffic, they come here for work. They stay on these high altitude mountain passes for 4-5 months a year. They are the ones who ensure that your road trip to Manali goes smoothly.
In these months, they earn around Rs.20K (roughly 300$) to take back home. The only highlight of their day is the 2-3 buses that cross this highway. Otherwise, they are completely disconnected from civilisation.
Hats off to their endurance!
Just as we were getting used to the winding roads came a patch of flat grasslands. Good enough for our bus to start cruising along. These were the Morey Plains. This “flatness” was however short-lived and business was back to normal.
Breakfast halt at Pang
After the Morey Plains, before the next mountain pass is Pang. Our bus halted for breakfast here. This is where most vehicles take their first break while travelling from Leh to Manali.
Itinerary planning tip:
There are food stalls as well as a few camping tents to spend the night at Pang. Pang is a suitable option to break the journey if you are on a road trip from Manali to Leh by bike (which is a direction we do not recommend – reasons explained later).
Lachung (Lachulung) la, the second pass on the Manali Leh highway
Long and meandering, with its peak at 4891 m, the Lachung la (also called Lachulung la) was our second pass of the day 1 of our journey to Manali from Leh.
Mountains the shades of browns you didn’t know and land formations you didn’t think possible are the characteristic of this mountain pass! Like this natural tunnel, we saw on Lachung la. Opposite the motor-able road, this is probably part of the trekking route from Leh to Manali.
Nakee la – the third mountain pass on the Manali Leh highway (and some Whisky)
By the time we reached Nakee la, our third mountain pass, we had come to terms with our “heart in mouth” condition.
Every glimpse of the Indus river flowing below brought with it a green oasis. The bus now changed several mountains, crossing the bridges over the river. Despite the harsh conditions, the BRO (Border Roads Organisation, a wing of the Indian army which makes these high-risk mountain roads at the border) hasn’t lost a sense of humour. This bridge that we crossed was the famous Whisky Nala of the Manali Leh highway.
Itinerary planning tip:
If you are on a road trip from Manali to Leh, you would be nearing the end of your day 1 or just starting out fresh for day 2 of your journey – depending on where you halted for the night.
Whisky Nala is also a halt option for those travelling on the Manali Leh highway by cycle – especially from Manali to Leh. A couple of camping options can be found.
Driving through wilderness
Our minds started to wander. To the people who crossed these mountains on foot. Years ago. Not by choice. Out of necessity.
To the people who have set up camps here, the BRO employees—the ones who maintain these roads. What makes them choose this job? How do they stay connected? How do they get their supplies?
How does this place look in the winter? Covered in the snow? Do the mountains ever get lonely? But they always have winds for company!
Minds wandering and wondering.
Avalanches and landslides
It was now time for the reds . The wind-battered mountain faces with their powdered rocks seemed like gigantic sand dunes.
This also makes the Manali Leh highway vulnerable to massive landslides. The landscape is all very stunning; but with such strong forces of nature at play, there is never really a guaranteed safe passage!
Gata loops, a series of switchbacks
Gata Loops are a series of hairpin bends looping down. Going down the Gata loops was a roller coaster ride of this journey from Leh to Manali, something we will never forget.
As if the thrill of just scraping by the bend wasn’t enough, the driver decided to add some fun. A shortcut was what he needed. He got off the tarmac road. Onto the ground, in between the loops. The bus rattled. As did our teeth. We were just hoping this shortcut doesn’t cut short dear life!
Sarchu, a midway point of the Manali Leh highway
After the Gata Loops, came Sarchu. We were now also one state lower, crossed over from the state of Jammu and Kashmir into Himachal Pradesh. This was the Lahaul region of the district of Lahaul and Spiti. Ladakh was still a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir when we did this road trip from Leh to Manali. It is now a Union Territory.
Sarchu has the highest number of camping options on the Manali Leh highway. But it’s geographical location is such, that it’s surrounded by the high mountains. Which is why, even though it’s at a slightly lower altitude than Pang, many face difficulty in breathing at Sarchu. Even we felt a slight uneasiness just sitting in the state transport bus from Leh to Manali. In fact, we also felt a bit drowsy and this was the only stretch of the road trip where we fell asleep.
After Sarchu came yet another bridge – this one called the Brandy Nala!
Sarchu has the most camping options on the Manali Leh highway.
For those wanting to break their road trip from Leh, Ladakh to Manali (by bike or car) into two nights, usually, spend the first night at Sarchu.
This is, however, a more popular night halt option for those travelling in the opposite direction, from Manali to Leh.
Baralacha la – the fourth mountain pass on the Manali Leh highway
Baralacha la was our last mountain pass of the day, and it was a massive one! Deep valleys, hairpin bends and steep curves were now “just another day in office”.
The sun was high above our head and the glaciers were melting in full flow. Our bus crossed through what felt like rivers.
The opening of this epic Leh Manali highway, the road connecting Manali to the high altitude Ladakh, depends a lot on the condition of Baralacha La. This mountain pass gets some of the highest snowfalls of the entire highway. It is extremely prone to avalanches. Avalanche experts study this stretch before giving a go-ahead to the BRO to start clearing it.
Towards the end of Baralacha La, we crossed a lake Suraj Taal.
Ever since we had left Leh and taken that turn at Upshi towards the Manali Leh highway, most of this road trip had been through the wilderness. There were no villages to cross. It’s like we had left civilisation behind us. (Here, is where you say “bye-bye civilisation”, coming from Manali to Leh).
After crossing Baralacha la, we realised we were coming close to civilisation. Soon we would see people! And shockingly, the thought of seeing more people gave us joy! Coming from Mumbai, a city of over 20 million, we never ever thought that was possible!
Reaching Keylong – end of Day 1 of the road trip from Leh to Manali
Soon after, we reached Keylong where the day’s epic journey ended. Keylong is the biggest town/village in Lahaul. This is the most “civilised” part of the entire journey on the Manali Leh highway.
As soon as we got off our bus, we got into the queue to book tickets for the next day, on the bus from Keylong to Manali. The tickets issued at the Leh bus stand were only for our journey from Leh, Ladakh to Keylong. For the remaining journey, from Keylong to Manali, we had to buy new tickets at the Keylong bus stand.
There were a few options, but we bought tickets for the first bus out of Keylong. It was late evening by the time we got out of the Keylong bus stand. Just outside was a hotel that seemed decent enough to spend the night. We got a room in this hotel.
Day 2: Early morning start from Keylong
Early the next morning, while it was still dark, we resumed the journey on the Manali Leh highway. This journey from Keylong to Manali was going to be much shorter. We were expected to be in Manali before noon. Our minds were already in the lush greens of Manali, by the Beas river.
But before that — there was the Rohtang Pass. A passing of rite ritual for anyone who travels to the Himalayas. A mountain pass no driver dares to cross in the night.
After a couple of hours, in broad daylight, we were at the start of the Rohtang Pass. The crowned prince of the Leh Manali highway. Or a dreaded monster!
Rohtang Pass – the fifth and final mountain pass on the Manali Leh highway
Imagine the bus (rickety, with smooth tyres!), negotiating a hairpin bend on bumpy gravel at a gradient of what feels over 60 degrees. Suddenly, there’s a truck in front of you. And the bus has to reverse. On the valley side.
But we couldn’t see any of it, because, well, the valley was covered in fog. Or mist. Or were they clouds? We couldn’t tell and honestly, we didn’t care! We were just glad we weren’t able to see it all! It was now too much to handle!
“If the bus falls off now, at least I have seen the most majestic place on earth.” Yes, this did cross our minds.
All through the Greater Himalayas, the mountains had been barren and brown, and we had been in awe. But the return of greenery had a huge effect on our minds as well. The mountains, laden with a thick cover of conifers were beginning to look friendly again.
We hadn’t used the word “lovely”, for the landscape, in a long while. But now, towards the end of the journey, as we crossed Gulaba and Marhi, we were beginning to think it all looked lovely.
End of the journey at Manali
We reached the bus stand in Manali, as scheduled, around noon. The sound of the Beas river dominated the orchestra of birdsongs.
The most important people all along 470 km of this highway on our bus journey from Leh to Manali had been the drivers of our buses. They had to be top alert at all times, all of our lives literally depended on how sharp our driver was. The stress of a corporate job paled in comparison to the responsibility these drivers on the Leh Manali highway were carrying on their shoulders.
We firmly believed our driver was a magician. And our bus, The Chariot of the Gods!
Manali to Leh, Ladakh or Leh, Ladakh to Manali?
Which is the best direction for a road trip on the Manali Leh highway?
Any road trip on the Manali Leh highway, either by bus, car or by bike, should preferably be in the direction from Leh, Ladakh to Manali. This highway should be used at the end of your trip to leave Ladakh and return to the lower altitude in Manali.
Why do we recommend the direction from Leh to Manali for a road trip on the Manali Leh highway?
- The main reason, which no traveller should overlook in Ladakh, is altitude acclimatisation. Have a look at the infographic below, to get an idea about the altitudes you will cross on the Manali Leh highway.
- You cross altitudes of over 4500 meters on the Manali Leh highway. If your journey starts in Manali, you are not acclimatised to this high altitude. Your body is not prepared to handle the reduced oxygen levels at these high altitudes.
- As the photos along this road trip from Leh to Manali show, most of the journey is through a stark wilderness. Except for the few campsites, which are a few and far between, most of this highway is devoid of civilisation. Basic medical facilities are found only at Keylong and thanks to the Indian Army, some at Sarchu.
- What all of this means is that if altitude sickness sets in, help will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to find on the Manali Leh highway.
- On the contrary, coming from north to south, when you start the journey from Leh, Ladakh to Manali, you would have already spent time at these high altitudes. Your body would be well acclimatised to safely tackle the altitudes of the Manali Leh highway.
Altitude acclimatisation is the main reason we recommend to do the road trip on the Manali Leh highway from Leh, Ladakh to Manali.
What is the alternative to the Manali Leh highway to reach Ladakh?
The NH1-D, the Srinagar Leh highway is the second route to reach Ladakh by road. This is the recommended highway for a road trip to Leh, Ladakh.
Srinagar-Leh-Manali is an exciting circuit to get a real feel of Ladakh and the Himalayas.
FAQs about the journey on the Manali Leh highway
Is the Manali Leh highway safe? How is the road from Manali to Leh?
- Road condition and the weather are the two factors that will largely decide whether the Manali Leh highway is safe.
- July to September are the safest times, weatherwise, to do this journey. The highway has five high altitude mountain passes, sharp hairpin bends and narrow roads. You will face at least a couple of water crossings. The road conditions on this highway vary from being smooth and in blacktop to almost gravel road (or off-roading) in some cases.
- If you are planning a self-drive road trip by car on the Manali Leh highway, you need to be an experienced driver. Same applies for a biking trip. This is not a highway for novice drivers or bikers.
- Landslides are not uncommon the Manali Leh highway. Mountain weather is notorious for being unpredictable. You have to be careful and prepared for delays because of landslides or bad weather.
How dangerous is the Manali Leh highway?
- If you are lucky to get good weather then you are most likely to have the smoothest possible journey on the Manali Leh highway. In addition to what I have said above, I will add that your driver goes a long way in making the road trip on the Manali Leh highway the least dangerous for you.
- The HRTC bus drivers are some of the best drivers we have experienced on our travels. Which is why we highly recommend a road trip from Leh to Manali by bus.
- Don’t cut corners. Trust the local driver. And if the locals predict bad weather and the buses stop running, do not venture out on this highway (even if the private taxis agree to take you).
Is the Leh to Manali road trip comfortable by bus?
Even though not as comfortable as travelling in an SUV, the buses, even the regular HRTC buses are surprisingly not bad. Understand that, the journey from Leh to Manali, a distance of 470 km, is inherently a long one. You travel at high altitudes through long winding roads all through this journey. Naturally, travelling on the Manali Leh highway is tiring.
Is photography possible while travelling in a bus on the Manali Leh highway?
Travelling by bus from Leh to Manali obviously means not having the luxury to stop wherever you please. Having said that, all of our images on this journey were taken from a moving bus.
What is the best time to travel on the Leh Manali highway?
- The best time to travel on the Manali Leh highway is from mid-June to September.
- The Manali Leh highway is usually open for traffic from June to October. The exact opening and closing dates of this highway depend on the weather condition and the amount of snow on the mountain passes.
- If Ladakh has a good winter with snowfall then the opening of the Manali Leh highway in the following summer will be delayed. Do not expect the highway to open before the first week of June. The closing date of the highway also depends on the weather towards the end of October.
- Having said that, by late Septemeber/ early October, many of the dhabas and campsites along the Leh Manali highway start shutting down. People who set these up, start going back to their villages.
- By October, it starts to get pretty cold on the high mountain passes of this highway. You might also experience some snowfall on the Manali Leh highway in October.
Is Manali Leh highway open in May?
Generally, no. Unless Ladakh has experienced very bad winters without any snowfall. The Manali Leh highway usually opens in the first week of June. For the first few days, the highway is unstable. There is slush on the roads because of the melting snow. This makes driving on the Manali Leh highway risky.
Where should I stay between Manali and Leh?
- Besides Keylong in the Lahaul region which has a number of hotels and guest houses, the most camping options are available at Sarchu.
- Pang also has camps for stay, though fewer than Sarchu.
- Jispa, a few kilometres away from Keylong is also a stay option for those who want to stay away from the bigger Keylong.
How much does the Manali to Leh road trip cost?
The taxi fare for a road trip on the Manali Leh highway is roughly INR 22000. The official taxi fares for all the routes in Ladakh are mentioned here.
Manali Leh road trip itinerary
The Manali Leh road trip, in whichever direction you choose to do, should at least have 2 days. Depending on the direction, your mode of travel and our appetite for adventure, there are a few options that you have.
Two points to remember for any kind of itinerary of the Manali Leh highway are –
- Start as early as possible on all days.
- Avoid driving in the dark.
2-day itinerary for the Manali Leh road trip in from Leh to Manali
- Day 1 – Leh to Keylong (358 km, 4 mountain passes)
Start early from Leh. 5 AM start would be the best. Stop for tea at the stalls in Karu or Upshi before taking the turn for the Manali Leh highway. You will reach Pang in time for breakfast. Lunch at Sarchu or Bharatpur (before Baralacha La) or Zingzing bar after Baralacha La. Night halt at Jispa or Keylong in the Lahaul region.
- Day 2 – Keylong to Manali (115 km, 1 mountain pass)
Start early in the morning, again at around 5 AM to avoid getting into the traffic jams on the Rohtang Pass or Manali. You can have breakfast at Gulaba after the Rohtang Pass. Reach Manali by noon.
- There are more than enough options to stay in Manali. We suggest staying on the Naggar road for a peaceful experience. If you want to leave the same day for Delhi or Chandigarh, you can take the night bus from Manali. Leave your luggage in the cloakroom at the Manali bus stand, explore Manali in the day, or just relax in one of the cafes in old Manali.
2-day itinerary for the Manali Leh road trip in from Manali to Leh
- Choose this direction for your Manali Leh road trip only if you are more than 100% sure that it is not possible to travel in the opposite direction.
- Day 1 – Manali to Jispa (137 km, 1 mountain pass)
Start early from Manali. Even though it’s a short drive today, it is better to start early so you cross the Rohtang Pass before the day tourist traffic starts. Starting early also gives you a chance to explore some places in Lahaul. End your journey in Keylong or Jispa (preferable). You will have time to drive/ride further up to Sarchu. But it is better to halt at Jispa, for altitude acclimatisation. Rest well.
- Day 2 – Jispa to Leh (335 km, 4 mountain passes)
It’s a long day today. You can take your halts at Sarchu and Pang before making the headway to Leh. It might be late by the time you are back in civilisation at Upshi. Upshi to Leh is a short drive of 47 km. The roads are flat and in excellent condition. This is one stretch of the journey on the Manali Leh highway where it is okay to drive in the dark.
3-day itinerary for the Manali Leh road trip
- Leh to Manali
Day 1 – Leh to Pang/Sarchu
Day 2 – Pang/Sarchu to Keylong
Day 3 – Keylong to Manali
- Manali to Leh
Day 1 – Manali to Jispa
Day 2 – Jispa to Sarchu/Pang
Day 3 – Sarchu/Pang to Leh
- If you have the time then we recommend keeping 3 days for the journey on the Manali Leh highway. You will get a better feel of the place. How often will you be able to be so close to raw nature?
How can I go to Manali from Leh by bus
- You can travel from Manali to Leh by state transport buses. The Himachal State Transport operates daily buses from Leh to Manali once the highway is opened for traffic.
- The HRTC bus leaves from the Leh depot early in the morning at 5 AM.
- Which means you must make arrangements the previous night for someone to drop you early the next morning to the Leh bus depot.
- Book the bus tickets a day prior to your journey on the Manali Leh highway. The bus, which has arrived from Manali, will already be parked in the Leh bus depot. The conductor will give you the ticket in the bus itself. This ticket is for your journey from Leh to Keylong. You can also book tickets online.
- Tip: For the best views on your journey from Leh to Manali, take a seat in the front of the bus on the driver’s side. The views of the entire Leh Manali highway are better from this side of the bus. Try reaching the bus stand before noon the previous day to book tickets for your journey so that you get the best seat in the house.
- HPTDC also runs buses on the Leh Manali highway from July to September. These buses are more comfortable than your regular state-run bus. The ticket includes your journey from Leh all the way to Manali, stay at Keylong and dinner as well as breakfast.
- The HPTDC bus usually starts plying on the Manali Leh highway from July 1.
Tips for Manali to Leh road trip by bike
- Bikers usually have a 2-day itinerary to cover the 470 km Manali Leh highway.
- It is advisable to travel in a group. It’s always good to have the support of local intelligence with you on your Leh Ladakh bike trip. This way there is someone to help you out if things go wrong.
- The Leh Manali highway is a long, arduous and a back-breaking journey. Before embarking on the road trip from Leh to Manali by bike, a biker should have done some long-distance rides before, preferably in the mountains.
Cycling on the Manali Leh highway
Cycling the Manali Leh highway is the most exhilarating way to experience this highway. Cyclists usually cover this distance of 470 km from Manali to Leh (while cycling, either direction should be okay because you are travelling at a slow pace, giving your body enough time to acclimatise to the altitude) in eight to ten days.
Cycling on the Leh Manali highway requires a high level of fitness and cyclists usually prepare months in advance unless you are a regular long-distance cyclist.
Some useful resources to know about cycling on the Manali Leh highway are:
- solo cycle journey,
- cycling with a group and
- cycling with a second-hand bicycle which was quite insightful in understanding what goes into accomplishing this epic journey on the Manali Leh highway.
- This is a great resource for choosing the type of bike for your journey on the Leh Manali highway.
Tips for a safe and healthy journey on the Manali Leh highway
- Stay hydrated. Yes, there are very few toilets on the Manali Leh highway. At many places, you will have to “go in the open”. But don’t skimp on drinking water for the fear of wanting to go to the loo.
- Stay warm. Hands and feet can go numb, which is a bad idea at these altitudes. You can use these hand warmers and body warmers to stay warm. Keep a light sweater, a windcheater and a woollen cap to cover the ears handy.
- You will find shared SUVs travelling from Leh to Manali. These boast of “doing” the Manali Leh highway in a day. This means a continuous drive of 16-18 hours for the driver. This also means crossing the Rohtang Pass (or some mountain pass) in the night. It means a cramped SUV and all of this means high risk and a miserable time. Attempting to do this, especially when you are a tourist to Ladakh is one of the most foolish things to do.
Detailed map of the Leh Manali highway
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