Are you planning to visit Ladakh and drive to its various attractions? Here is a guide based on my personal journeys in Ladakh. Enjoy the drive on Kunzum Route K12. The route takes covers the following circuit (not necessarily in this order): Delhi – Kullu – Manali – Jispa – Sarchu – Leh – Pangong Tso – Tso Moriri – Tso Kar – Nubra – Alchi – Lamayuru – Kargil – Zanskar – Srinagar – Jammu – Delhi.
This guide is also an update on the previous you may have read here. Before you continue, you may want to read these posts:
* A suggested itinerary for Ladakh
* Some Travel Tips
* 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
* Delhi (Rajghat) – Delhi / Haryana Border: 33 kms / 0:26 hrs
Distance marked from here in kms: Ambala 170, Karnal 92
* Delhi / Haryana Border – Barista Coffee (located on left side of highway itself): 23 kms / 0:17 hrs
If you prefer, there is a Café Coffee Day just 2 kms down and a very nice multi cuisine restaurant Haveli soon after; I think the latter is open 24 hours.
* Barista Coffee – Samalkha: 23 kms / 0:12 hrs
* Samalkha – Panipat: 17 kms / 0:10 hrs
Stick to the central lanes as you approach Panipat so you can take the flyover over the city – if you go through the city below the flyover, it could take you 30 minutes or longer.
* Panipat – Barista Coffee (located on opposite side of highway): 31 kms / 0:26 hrs
I took a break here – Barista is open 24 hrs here.
* Barista Coffee – Savoy Greens Food Court (next to Karni Lake in Karnal, on the opposite side of the highway): 13 kms / 0:13 hrs
The Savoy Greens is one of the better places to eat on the highway. The food court offers a selection of McDonalds, Costa Coffee, Subway, Domino’s Pizza, Kwality (North Indian dishes), a South Indian counter besides others.
* Savoy Greens – Karnal Toll Plaza (Rs. 81 for cars in 2010): 16 kms / 0:14 hrs
* Karnal Toll Plaza – Kurukshetra / Pipli: 13 kms / 0:11 hrs
Pipli is on the highway itself while Kurukshetra is a little inside from the highway.
* Kurukshetra – Ambala: 43 kms / 0:36 hrs
Just after the town there is a Saagar Ratna restaurant (serving south and north Indian cuisines, and usually do a good job – except the last time I was there) – a good option for a meal. It is located on the opposite side of the highway.
It is also a good idea to tank up at or before Ambala. Fuel is much more expensive in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
* Ambala – Right Turn for Kharar / Roopnagar just before Toll Plaza: 14 kms / 0:15 hrs
When you exit Ambala, don’t take the road to Chandigarh but the one to Jalandhar along NH1. Shortly after you will come to a toll plaza – don’t cross it. There is a right turn just before that, take that.
* Turn for Kharar – Kharar: 42 kms / 0:41 hrs
You hit NH21 after this that goes all the way to Manali
* Kharar – Kurali Toll Plaza (Rs. 11 for car in 2010): 13 kms / 0:17 hrs
* Kurali Toll Plaza – Roopnagar (formerly Ropar): 16 kms / 0:18 hrs
* Roopnagar – Right Turn for Manali: 31 kms / 0:42 hrs
Be careful here – it is easy to miss this turn. I did and overshot by 8kms. There is a flyover under construction next to a railway crossing and a fuel station. You have to turn right here over the tracks. Traffic sometimes tends to get jammed here. Of course, in due course of time, this flyover will be complete – but no one knows when. It has been work in progress for years.
* Right Turn for Manali – Swarghat: 22 kms / 0:35 hrs
* Swarghat – Bilaspur: 42 kms / 1:25 hrs
The road become mountainous from here. It was generally a good road but has deteriorated lately especially after the unexceptionally heavy rains of 2010.
* Bilaspur – Sundernagar: 44 kms / 1:09 hrs
* Sundernagar – Mandi: 24 kms / 0:29 hrs
* Mandi – Aut Tunnel (2809 m long): 39 kms / 0:51 hrs
* Aut Tunnel – Kullu: 31 kms / 0:39 hrs
* Kullu – Naggar: 26 kms / 0:55 hrs
After you cross Kullu town, you will see a bridge going across the river. Slow down, take a U-turn to the left and go onto the bridge to cross over. This will take you on the right bank – I took this as my hotel is located on that side. The drive is along a narrower road that takes you through villages and Naggar – all along, you will see fruit orchards, a delightful sight at all time especially when they bear fruits or flowers. You may choose not to cross the river and continue straight – that gets you to the centre of Manali town quicker.
A good idea to tank up in Kullu or Manali – the next fuel station will be in Tandi. And supplies there can be erratic – and you will have to wait to get to Leh to find the next station.
* Naggar – Manali: 22 kms / 0:37 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 578 kms / 11:38 hours
General Notes for the Delhi – Manali Drive:
* There is no dearth of fuel stations and places to eat along the way.
* It is always advisable to leave early from Delhi, preferably by 6 a.m. since it is a long journey and it is not advisable to drive in the dark on highways.
Leg 2: Manali – Jispa
This marks the beginning of one of the most beautiful drives you will ever undertake – and also one of the most challenging. There is virtually no road over long stretches and weather conditions can change fast – many groups were stuck for days when heavy unseasonal rains and flash floods occurred in the summer of 2010. But worry not – be careful and no one gets hurt.
* Manali – Marhi: 36 kms / 1:30 hrs
This is the better part of the road – and you will generally have a smooth run. Of course, there will be rough patches – and all it takes is one stuck vehicle to throw all traffic out of gear. At Marhi, you can take a break for tea / snacks / meal at one of the many roadside Dhabas (restaurants). Most restrooms belong to the Dhabas and they only allow paying customers to use it. Buy a tea or cola if need be to use it – there are not too many opportunities to go behind rocks for a long time after this.
* Marhi – Rohtang Pass: 16 kms / 1:30 hrs
This is a bad stretch, getting worse with every monsoon rains and winter snow. You will make only slow progress when you go off season with limited traffic, and it will be a snarl during holiday season. Marked Altitide for Rohtang Pass: 3,980 m (13,057 ft)
* Rohtang Pass – Gramphoo (Turn Right for Kaza /Spiti, and straight for Ladakh): 16 kms / 1:19 hrs
Distance marked from here in kms: Kaza 137, Tabo 177, Keylong 51
* Gramphoo – Koksar: 6 kms / 0:10 hrs
You need to enter your personal information at the Police Post here. Non-Indians may need to show passports / travel permits if required.
* Koksar – Sissu: 14 kms / 0:15 hrs
* Sissu – Tandi (Last fuel station here till Leh): 24 kms / 0:50 hrs
A good idea to tank up here even if you think you have enough fuel. You never know when you may have to take unplanned diversions. But don’t depend on this place to get fuel – it may be closed or out of stock sometimes. Best to be sure you have enough from Manali onwards.
* Tandi – Keylong: 9 kms / 0:20 hrs
You can enter the town here to grab a bite – but it will be basic at best. Keylong is also known for some monasteries and other religious establishments should you be interested. I did not explore these.
* Keylong – Jispa: 23 kms / 0:50 hrs
Stop here for a night halt. If you have made good progress, you can continue to Sarchu – not recommended as you like to go slow and steady after Jispa to admire the many attractions on the way.
Total Distance / Time: 144 kms / 6:45 hrs
Leg 3: Jispa – Leh
Be prepared for a rough ride from here. The quality of roads (where they exist) changes every year depending on damaging the winters were and the extent of repairs that follow. You will get long stretches of broken roads, or just dust tracks.
* Jispa – Deepak Tal (Lake): 23 kms / 0:50 hrs
This is a small but beautiful lake. Have a snack, meal or tea at Hozer’s shack if you like.
* Deepak Tal – Suraj Tal: 30 kms / 1:00 hrs
A bigger lake, makes for great pictures if it is partially or fully frozen. This is usually so during early summers when snow has not fully melted.
* Suraj Tal – Baralach La (Pass): 3 kms / 0:05 hrs
This is one of the higher passes in Ladakh, and prone to unseasonal snowfalls and late melting of winter ice. Ice walls can reduce the road to a single lane, or block it altogether. Provision for delays here – but stop for pictures too.
* Baralach La – Blue Poppy Camp near Sarchu: 19 kms / 0:50 hrs
Should you be spending the night at Sarchu?
The Blue Poppy Camp is one of the many that come up around during summers for travelers to stay. Many travel service providers recommend a night halt here to acclimatize to the higher altitudes of Ladakh. 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. 50-100.
You can make a run for Leh from Jispa. 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 – 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).
* Blue Poppy Camp – Sarchu: 15 kms / 0:25 hrs
This is the point where the state of Himachal Pradesh ends and you enter Ladakh, a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. You need to enter your personal particulars at a check post here, and non-Indians may be required to show their passports and other travel permits.
* Sarchu – Gata Loops Start: 26 kms / 0:40 hrs
The road literally loops up here for about 10 kms, hence the name. They make for great pictures with the right equipment when you look down at these from the top.
* Gata Loops Start – End: 10 kms / 0:20 hrs
* Gata Loops End – NakeeLa (Pass): 11 kms / 0:25 hrs
* NakeeLa – Lachung La (Pass): 12 kms / 0:30 hrs
* Lachung La – Pang: 23 kms / 1:05 hrs
This is where you may want a meal break, with a wide choice of dhabas (roadside shacks) to choose from. You will not get anything till you are close to Leh after this. And if you are short of breath or are developing symptoms of altitude sickness, the Army base here offers medical care to travelers.
* Pang – More Plains (These start at approximately this point and stretch for about 45 kms): 7 kms / 0:20 hrs
This is a high altitude plateau where you drive on a flat road for about 50 kms. You can expect to see the nomadic Changpas and their herds of livestock in this region.
* More Plains Start – Taglang La (Pass): 70 kms / 1:55 hrs
This is the highest point on the road to Leh. Enjoy the views but don’t hang around too long lest the high altitude and cold winds affect you. A few miles from Taglangla, and you will hit the best road since you left Manali. Get ready to step on the accelerator – but don’t throw caution to the winds.
* Taglang La – Gya: 37 kms / 1:15 hrs
You will finally hit civilization – and start greenery along the Indus river and its tributaies. Leh is within striking distance from here.
* Gya – Upshi: 27 kms / 0:35 hrs
* Upshi – Karu: 15 kms / 0:15 hrs
* Karu – Shey: 23 kms / 0:25 hrs
* Shey – Leh: 15 kms / 0:20 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 366 kms / 11:15 hrs
Leg 4: Leh to Pangong Tso and back
The road from Leh to Pangong Tso is mostly a smooth one, with some rough patches. On the way, you will have to cross the Pagal Nala though. This is a mountain stream that has come onto the road – and you need to negotiate it carefully lest the heavy water flow and the rocky bed cause an accident. You will get basic restaurants at town along the way to order snacks, meals and tea.
* 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
Take a brief halt here for pictures. The Army also serves great tea and coffee – have some, it’s refreshing.
* Chang La to Pangong Tso (start of lake): 77 kms / 2:30 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 160 km / 4:35 hrs one way
Leg 5: Leh to Tso Moriri, with detour to Tso Kar on the way, and back
The road to Tso Moriri is mostly a good one. Exceptions are (1) when you take the detour to Tso Kar and (b) the stretch between the small lake before Tso Moriri to Tso Moriri itself.
* 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
Your permits will be checked here.
* 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)
Take a detour from here, visit Tso Kar and come back the same way. Make a mental note of some landmarks – since much of the road is a dirt track, you do not want to take the wrong fork on the way back.
* Sumdo Village to Small Lake before Tso Moriri: 23 kms / 0:35 hrs
The road disappears at this point – you are just driving over a desert. Follow the tracks made by other vehicles. And watch out for soft sand pits – my car got stuck here and had to be pulled out by an Army truck.
* Small Lake to start of Tso Moriri: 15 kms / 0:30 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 221 kms / 4:40 hrs only Leh to Tso Moriri; diversion to Tso Kar is 40 kms / 1:10 hrs one way
Leg 6: Leh to Kyagar, Nubra Valley and back
* Leh to South Pullu: 40 kms / 1:15 hrs
* South Pullu to Khardung La: 11 kms / 1:00 hrs
Welcome to the highest motorable road in the world – or so the Army claims. Even in summers, don’t be surprised if you find snowflakes falling on your head.
* Khardung La to North Pullu: 21 kms / 1:15 hrs
* North Pullu to Yarab Tso Hotel, Kyagar, Nubra Valley: 80 kms / 2:30 hrs
Total Distance / Time: 152 kms / 6 hrs (The Siachen Glacier is about 100 kms / 3:00 hrs away from Kyagar)
Leg 7: Leh to Kargil
Take the road via Magnetic Hill, Likir Monastery, Khalsi (also spelled Khaltsi or Khaltse on different signboards), Lamayuru and Mulbeck. You can also visit Alchi for a night halt on the way, a short diversion off the highway. Leh to Alchi is 67 kms / 1:30 hrs. It is mostly a good highway – it has to be considering it is the lifeline for the Indian Army in protecting the borders from Pakistan. This highway runs along the borders of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK as it is commonly called) – and Pakistani armed forces can target traffic on this highway from behind the mountains.
Total Distance / Time: 230 kms / 7:00 hrs
Leg 8: Kargil to Padum, Zanskar and back
The distance is an approximation as my car’s odometer stopped working – it could not take the bumpy drive. What you get here 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. Approximately half way is Rangdum, with some camp sites and a monastery. You also have some shacks serving hot meals – eaten only to address hunger pangs. If you are finicky, pack your lunch in Kargil. 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.
Total Distance / Time: 240 kms / 12:00 hrs approx.
Leg 9: 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. Follow directions given for Manali – Jispa and Jispa – Leh in reverse.
* Go to Srinagar to catch a flight or continue driving further to your destination. Kargil to Sonamarg is 120 km / 5:30 hours; Sonamarg to Srinagar is 86 km / 2:30 hours; Srinagar to Jammu is 302 kms (189 miles) / 7:53 hrs. and Jammu to Delhi is 643 kms (402 miles) / 11:52 hrs. Read Kunzum Route K11 for a detailed guide.
* 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
* Divide all distances mentioned in kms by 1.6 to convert to miles.
Tips for Driving on Route K12
If you want to really enjoy Ladakh, you have to go by road. But driving in this terrain requires planning and caution. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
* You can get to Ladakh either via Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir or Manali in Himachal Pradesh. And can complete the loop by entering from one and exiting from the other.
* The roads are motorable from end-May to mid-October. But there is no assurance that you can drive even during this period. If the snow does not melt on higher passes, the roads may open late. Likewise, early or unseasonal snowfalls, flash floods and excessive rains can close the roads anytime. It is advised you check conditions before heading out.
* Never be short on fuel – have ample to spare. You can tank up only in Manali, Tandi, Leh, Kargil and Srinagar. Good Samaritans may not always have spare for you. Check the sections of fuel and what to pack in this book.
* Avoid driving sedans, take SUVs. While a 4-wheel drive is recommended, even a 2-wheel should be good if it has a good ground clearance.
* The quality of roads can swing between extremes with every passing year – don’t be shocked or surprised with what you encounter.
And do join us for a coffee at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, India.