This post has been updated and you may read the new one by clicking here.
There are many ways to reach Leh from Delhi, but the most enjoyable way is to do so by road. If you can drive the distance of about 1075 kilometers, taking at least 3-4 days, it is sure to be an experience you will cherish for life. And try to drive yourself; there is a different thrill to it than being driven by someone else.
I did so myself in July 2008, and the journey came with some learnings as it has its own challenges. Here is a practical plan you could follow to get from Delhi to Leh:
Leave for Kullu or Manali. It will take about 12 hours to cover the 550 km to Kullu via Ambala, Chandigarh, Roopnagar (Ropar), Bilaspur and Mandi. You could carry on for another 50 km to Manali. A night halt in either of these towns is fine.
Head for Jispa, located about 145 km from Manali via Rohtang Pass. The 51 km drive from Manali to Rohtang can take about three hours; it is a steep ascent, the road quality is below par and traffic can halt at places due to landslides or broken down vehicles. Continue a further 65 km to Keylong, but don’t forget to tank up at Tandi (about 9 km before Keylong) as the next fuel station is only 30 km before Leh. (It is always a good idea to carry some extra fuel in a jerry can in case Tandi is closed or out of fuel, or you decide to take some detours). About 16 km from Rohtang, also watch out for a junction where you keep left; the right turn will take you to Lahaul and Spiti Valley. From Rohtang, the drive to Jispa can take about three hours. But do provision for a lunch break too; your options are either the shacks along the way or some restaurants in hotels in Keylong.
Jispa, located at about 10,890 feet, is a strongly recommended stop to get acclimatized to the subsequent higher altitude regions you would be staying at in Ladakh. You may even be advised to spend two nights here to get better acclimatized, but the jury will be out on this one for a long time as altitude sickness follows few rules and trends; the weakest looking of the pack might sail through, while the highly experienced travellers may just take ill anytime.
Now this is the tricky part: Do you make a run for Leh, take a night halt at Sarchu about 87 km from Jispa or camp somewhere between Sarchu and Leh? Here are some points to consider:
- At about 14,200 feet altitude, Sarchu is more acclimatization than you may need. It is very cold here, with strong windy conditions giving even camp managers who reside there constant headaches. Accommodation is all tented, and toilets are not attached, and it is not a cheerful thought walking out in the middle of the night with howling winds around. But Sarchu is also the only place between Jispa and Leh where you can organized accommodation; your only other option is to pitch tent on the way or crash at any of the shacks on the way who provide a bed for Rs. 50.
- You can make a run for Leh from Jispa, about 325 km away. It should take you about 11 hours but here is a warning: You may not want to be driving in the dark should you get delayed due to traffic snarls, road blocks, breakdowns or any other reason. And the drive from Jispa to Leh is worth stopping many times over to admire the natural features as well as to take pictures. Why would you want to keep moving when the whole idea of a road trip to Leh was to enjoy the drive?
I personally fell ill at Sarchu, and had a tough night with its symptoms. The next day too was a difficult time driving, and it was only when I received medical attention and a dose of oxygen from an Army doctor at Pang on the way to Leh did I feel normal.
What would I do in the future and suggest you do too? Stay at Jispa, and make a very early start (say at 5:00 am) and make a run for Leh. Make sure you get a full night’s sleep to be well rested for the long drive ahead. It may be safe to assume that the chances of falling ill, even when going through high altitude areas, are low as long as you keep moving. Starting early will give you a cushion for delays and you can still make it to Leh while there is daylight. Even if night falls, but if you are within 60-70 km of Leh, it is all right as the terrain is mostly flat and more densely populated (in case you need assistance).
You need this day in case you take a night halt between Jispa and Leh. Or if you had stayed at Jispa for two nights.
Going to Tso Moriri before Leh
If you intend going to Tso Moriri en route to Leh, it is a long drive from Jispa and a night halt in Sarchu may be required. But remember, Tso Moriri is at an even higher altitude than Sarchu and you may feel ill as some travellers do. Do take your precautions.
Some more points to consider
- All driving times mentioned above are without a provision for stopping to take photographs.
- When you are short of time, like when you have a full day drive planned, it may be a good idea to carry some food packed at the last hotel you stayed in. You will then not waste time looking for food, and be able to use that saved time for photographs or to make up for lost ground in case of unforeseen delays.
Would you like to receive Kunzum’s weekly e-newsletter? Click here to subscribe.