Kunzum Route K12: Driving in Ladakh – A Guide

Lamas walking on a road in Nubra, Ladakh

This post has been updated and you may read the new one by clicking here.

Are you planning to visit Ladakh and drive to its various attractions? Here is a guide based on my personal journeys in Ladakh over the last two seasons. Enjoy the drive on Kunzum Route K12. Click here for more routes.Before you continue, you may want to read these posts:

* A suggested itinerary for Ladakh
* What to pack when driving in the mountains
* There are many other posts on Ladakh – click here to read
* Nature calling in Ladakh? Some handy tips
* You may want to purchase my book, Postcards from Ladakh

Leg 1: Delhi to Manali: 600 km / 14 hours
Your first night halt should be in Manali. Or Kullu which is 50 kms before Manali. It does not matter, because you will have enough time the following day to reach Jispa. And it is not recommended you go beyond Jispa on Day 2. Go via Ambala, Chandigarh, Roopnagar (Ropar), Bilaspur and Mandi.

Leg 2: Manali to Jispa: 145 km / 7 – 9 hrs
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. It can take 3 – 6 hours to get to Rohtang; always better to leave early to beat the traffic and have more time on your hands. 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 Keylong.

Take a night halt at Jispa, located at about 10,890 feet. If you have time to spare, you may even spend two nights to get better acclimatized to the high altitudes.

Leg 3: Jispa – Sarchu: 87 kms / 3 Hrs OR Jispa to Leh: 325 kms / 10-12 Hrs
You can take a night halt in Sarchu on the way to Leh or make a straight run for Leh from Jispa. The choice is yours, but we recommend going straight to Leh.

Night halt at Sarchu? 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 there is  organized accommodation; your only other option is to pitch tent on the way or crash at any of the shacks along 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?

What would we suggest? Stay at Jispa, and make a very early start (say at 6:00 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).

Leg 4: Leh to Pangong Tso and back: 160 km / 4:35 hrs one way
Head out to the picturesque Pangong Tso (Lake) for one night, also acting as a border between India and China. Stop at the Chang La (Pass) on the way for hot tea served by the Indian Army. But be careful not to spend too much time at the high altitude – 30 minutes at the most. The route – even when the roads are not smooth – is mostly hazard free. Your only challenge comes at the Pagal Nala (Mad Stream) – it is a stream coming down the mountains and you have to carefully drive over its rocky undersurface. The flow of water can really intensify by late afternoon.

Route Chart from Leh to Pangong Tso

* Leh to Shey: 15 km / 0:15 hrs
* Shey to Karu: 23 kms / 0:20 hrs
* Karu to Sakti: 11 kms / 0:20 hrs
* Sakti to Chang La (Pass): 34 kms / 1:10 hrs

* Chang La to Pangong Tso (start of lake): 77 kms / 2:30 hrs

Leg 5: Leh to Tso Moriri, with detour to Tso Kar on the way, and back
Distance / Time: 221 kms / 4:40 hrs only Leh to Tso Moriri; diversion to Tso Kar is 40 kms / 1:10 hrs one way

This is the leg where you can see three lakes; provision to spend 1-2 nights.

Route Chart from Leh to Tso Moriri via Tso Kar

* Leh to Shey: 15 km / 0:15 hrs
* Shey to Karu: 23 kms / 0:20 hrs
* Karu to Upshi: 15 kms / 0:15 hrs
* Upshi to Chumathang: 95 kms / 2:00 hrs
* Chumathang to Mahe Bridge: 23 kms / 0:30 hrs
* Mahe Bridge to Sumdo Village: 12 kms / 0:15 hrs (diversion here for Tso Kar, the lake is about 40 kms / 1:10 hrs one way from here)
* Sumdo Village to Small Lake before Tso Moriri: 23 kms / 0:35 hrs
* Small Lake to start of Tso Moriri: 15 kms / 0:30 hrs

Leg 6: Leh to Kyagar, Nubra Valley and back: 152 kms / 6 hrs one way
There are many places you can explore and stay in Nubra Valley, but I chose to stay in Kyagar. It was closest to the Siachen Glacier that I had planned to visit the following day – had a special permission to do so. I missed out visiting the monastery at Diskit and also meeting the famous double humped camels of Nubra. But no regrets – I stayed at a highly picturesque village Kyagar in Yarab Tso Hotel, probably the best place to stay in Nubra. Even if you cannot visit Siachen, you can stay here and explore all of Nubra. Suggest you go for two nights.

Route Chart from Leh to Kyagar, Nubra Valley
* Leh to South Pullu: 40 kms / 1:15 hrs
* South Pullu to Khardung La: 11 kms / 1:00 hrs
* Khardung La to North Pullu: 21 kms / 1:15 hrs
* North Pullu to Yarab Tso Hotel, Kyagar, Nubra Valley: 80 kms / 2:30 hrs

The Siachen Glacier is about 100 kms / 3:00 hrs away from Kyagar.

Leg 7: Leh to Alchi: 77 kms / 1:30 hrs
It is a super highway to Alchi from Leh – and stays mostly this way when you head out further towards Kargil. Don’t forget to test if Magnetic Hill really works a little beyond Leh. Spend a night in Alchi before heading out further.

Leg 8: Alchi to Kargil:I think this is about 155 kms / 5 hours – but do double check with me. Don’t seem to find my readings at the time of posting this. Sorry about this. :(
You will need to go to Kargil for a night halt on the way to Zanskar. It is mostly an excellent highway – it has to be considering it is the lifeline for the Indian Army in protecting the borders from Pakistan. On the way take stops at Likir and Lamayuru monasteries, and the Maiteryi Buddha statue at Mulbeck.

Leg 9: Kargil to Padum, Zanskar and back: About 220 kms / 12 hours one way
I could not measure the distance properly as my car’s odometer stopped working. Cannot blame it – the road is one of the toughest you will drive on. It is not a road – just a rocky, bumpy path where you are lucky to average 20 km/hr. I pride in my stamina for long drives – but this one left me exhausted. Unfortunately, the accommodation and food waiting at the end of the ordeal does not provide any solace to the body. But wake up the following morning and your spirits will soar when you meet the people of Zanskar and look at its beauty. The only way back though is the same way to Kargil. You can then decide to come back via Srinagar or via Leh and Manali.

Leg 10: Return leg from Kargil
Once you are back in Kargil, you can go back one of the following ways:

* Retrace the path to Leh and catch a flight
* Retrace the path to Leh and continue driving to Manali and beyond
* Go to Srinagar to catch a flight or continue driving further to your destination. Kargil to Sonamarg is 120 km / 5:30 hours and Sonamarg to Srinagar is 86 km / 2:30 hours. Click here to get a driving guide beyond this.

* I have not included the time where I took stops. In other words, you are only reading actual driving times above except where mentioned.
* The actual distance readings can vary in different cars. Treat these as approximations only.
* Time taken can vary with traffic – always a good idea to leave early morning to beat at least some of the rush.
* One rule when driving in India: Keep asking for directions even when you know you are going correctly. With highways constantly being upgraded, you may be directed to some more efficient routes including bypassing towns, or being told about new roads. And locals always know when a road or a bridge has gone under, and may suggest alternate routes.
* The best people to ask for directions are drivers of taxis, buses and trucks. They ply the roads all the time.
* Milestones give distances to centres of town – and the above may not necessarily be measured at that point by me.
* SH: State Highway; NH: National Highway

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  1. Hai Ajay, Many thanks for the write-up. Infact I will be trekking from Palmo (Manali) to Padum (Kargil) from 21-08-10 to 31-08-10. And thereafter will be on a jeep safari to almost all the places that you have mentioned. The travel guide prepared by me almost matches with your notes. Special thanks.rnrnOne small point. You have said that, you missed out meeting double humped camels (Bactrian Camels). I read in news papers that there are only around 150 of them living in India. And their life is in doubt after the recent Leh floods. I guess you missed a great opportunity. Any way, I will be trying me level best to see them. (It is not there in our group’s itenarary, but that is a different matter). I will inform you once I come back after 11-09-10.rnrnKeep writing.

  2. Very nice itinerary!rnIdeally planned for a ride to world’s highest motorable road!rncover’s almost everything worth watching!rnrnI ll refer this one for my trip!rnthanks

  3. I’d say it is as acurate as it could get…tho this year the road quality from manali to leh was terrible due to heavy monsoon season…crossing rohtang is the biggest challenge this year..and i think the manali road may remain closed for the rest of the year…

  4. Hai Ajay,rnrnI have come back from my Manali-Palamo-Zanskar-ShingoLa-Phutkal Gompa-Mone-Padum trek and Padum-Kargil-Leh-Kargil-Srinagar tour. But because of time constraint I could not visit double humped camels.rnrnOne more thing. You have talked about tour of Leh from Manali side. I have travelled from Leh to Srinagar. The stretch between Srinagar-Kargil is really boring, whereas between Kargil-Leh it is quite interesting. Hence I recommend everyone to travel from Srinagar to Kargil to Leh, than Leh to Kargil to Srinagar.

  5. Hi ajay, i just returned from a road trip to Ladakh. we went via srinagar and returned via manali. the trip was mostly good. but unfortunately in my research before leaving no where did i read that the phones stop working and expecially in srinagar where only post paid numbers work. no one mentioned these connectivity issues anywhere. also we were stuck in sarchu for 3 whole days as Baralacha la was closed because of snow and traffic.
    nobody’s experience shared/ warned us of that.


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