Leh to Sarchu – The Adventures of Manali Leh Highway

by Harsh Vardhan

This article is in continuation to a previous one and a part of my Leh Ladakh Travelogue. Please click on the links below to read the previous parts of the travelogue detailing the journey for the first 14 days as we reached Leh from Delhi and spent time driving around in Ladakh. On Day 15, we started our return journey and traveled from Leh to Sarchu, details of which are covered in the post below.

Journey So Far

The IMD website had predicted rain with snowfall in the higher reaches in areas near Keylong. This coupled with the fact that the Manali-Leh highway is notoriously unstable, we decided to dash till Jispa on Day 15. It obviously meant an early start to the day from Leh and we were on our way at about 6:30 am.

Day 15: Leh to Sarchu

Since the drive till Tanglang La had been covered a week back, we decided not to take pitstops for photography or anything else till then. We were at Debring by 9:30 am and stopped for tea.

The stall owner was pleasantly surprised to see us again after a week and asked us if we had printed the photographs we’d taken of him and his gang of friends. We had not done it in Leh, so promised him that we’d send it by courier after reaching Delhi (which we finally did yesterday).

Soon it was time to leave, and we were stretching outside the tea-tent when we saw a 500 cc bullet leave the road and come straight towards Harsh! This was pretty odd, I thought. The guy slowed down and shouted a nickname for me which only my college friends knew!

He was covered from head to toe in his riding gear, thus I was not able to recognize him. To my surprise, he turned out to be an old friend who was staying in the same hostel as me during my college days. He saw a black Safari parked outside the tent, and was hoping to find me, and voila! It was good fun to unexpectedly run into an old friend. We exchanged notes on the route ahead and we then moved on in opposite directions.

Also Read: How to Plan a Trip to Leh Ladakh – A Complete Travel Guide

More Plains

A km later we were at the same bifurcation we’d taken a week back, the road to the left leading towards Tso Kar, and our hearts were aching to again take the cut which leads to the enchanting Changthang plateau! However, the better sense prevailed, and we marched on towards Manali.

The Moreh plains had begun and it was an awesome feeling to drive on them! It was a dream come true for us, and we were enjoying every second of it! I was on the wheel, and looking at the smooth hills on the left, I suddenly felt like driving Kiyang on them. We quickly identified a hill that seemed fit for the adventure.

Also, this particular hill, by our estimates, seemed exactly west of Tso Kar, and hence if we managed to reach the top, we would have a commanding view of the lake. We were three-quarters of our way up when we mutually decided not to go any further since the gradient had increased, and the climb did not look easy anymore.

Also, Harsh had seen a couple of Stallions on the road below, and was getting anxious since another shouting from the Army was the last thing he wanted! In hindsight, the climb to the top was doable, although a tad difficult, and would’ve given excellent views of Tso Kar. But I guess with the Manali-Leh highway, there’s always a next time!

The tarred road on Moreh plains would soon end​

more plains

The hill which we climbed is on the extreme left, the one with the narrow green patch on it​

more plains

Back on the plains​

more plains

Pang

We were on the plains again, but the tarred road had now ended. It was a dirt track from here on till the edge and was being rebuilt and widened by BRO. There was a track immediately to the left but was quite bumpy for our liking.

Thus we decided to drive in the middle of the plains. It again was a dry marshy track with bumps, but at least a lot less dusty. We saw a Baleno with multiple punctures abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Soon, we came to the edge of the plains and it was quite a sight below!

Also Read: How to Handle Acute Mountain Sickness in Ladakh

I could imagine the excitement of travelers, doing this stretch for the first time from Manali to Leh, on being greeted with this sight! We took a couple of shots there and hurried further towards Pang. Looking at the photographs now, we feel that we could’ve gone further on the plains along the edge, but at that time all we could think of was to reach Jispa in time.

Tarred roads about to end soon​

more plains

An abandoned tow truck on Moreh plains​

more plains

The edge of Moreh plains​

more plains

A small descent later, we reached the military camp at Pang. It did have some dhabas, but we thought not to stop and moved ahead towards Sarchu, so as to reach Jispa before dark. However, a long day awaited us, and little did we know what we were about to face at Baralacha La.

Kangla Jal

We crossed Pang at 11:45 am and were just getting over the beauty of the Moreh plains when we saw one of the most beautiful landscapes unfolding before us. Stark brown, barren, huge mountains, many of them shaped like ant-hills, surrounded us, and the blue sky dotted with beautiful white clouds just made the scenery look heavenly.

We’d thought that we wouldn’t find the Leh-Manali highway to be too beautiful, considering what we’d already seen, but we were so so wrong! The road stuck to the river mostly, climbing and descending at times, punctuated with small, pretty, green bridges.

We soon crossed the much-photographed ‘gateway’ formation, and then came to the notorious ‘Kangla Jal’, which we disappointingly crossed without fuss since there wasn’t much water.

The mandatory ‘gateway’ formation shot​

leh to sarchu

Kangla Jal​

leh to sarchu

Ahead of us were a Safari and a Scorpio traveling together, and when all of us stopped to capture some ‘bharals’ on the side of the road, we realized that they were the same people we’d met in Mulbekh, and then again in Leh. It’s a good feeling to meet people you know, even though you may have just met them once, on such otherwise deserted roads.

leh to sarchu

Lachulung La and Nakee La

Harsh ran after the bharals, got some good shots, and we moved on. The climb to Lachulung La was uneventful, although beautiful with snow everywhere. The pass isn’t very scenic, and it was super windy at the top, so after a customary shot of the yellow sign and prayer flags, we began our descent.

On the descent, we off-roaded a bit, and ended up saving some 5 km and a good 15 minutes! Soon we were climbing Nakee La, hardly an ascent, and there too after the same customary shot, we moved on, now excited to drive on the Gata Loops.

Gata Loops

We first came across a set of switchbacks which we mistook for the Gata Loops, but soon enough reached the sign which clearly stated ‘Gata Loops start’, and hence the confusion was cleared.

Also Read: The Ghost of Gata Loops

I, of course, was in no mood to do all of the 21 loops, and took the dangerously steep short-cuts wherever he could find one! After we crossed the Gata Loops, we caught the first sight of the pretty Tsarap Chu, which originates somewhere near Baralacha La, and is one of the tributaries of the Zanskar river.

Lachulung La​

Lachulung La​

The infamous Gata Loops.​

infamous Gata Loops

This one was a little tricky to climb down.​

infamous Gata Loops

Whiskey Nallah

As we were crossing the Whiskey Nallah, we saw a bunch of bharals crossing the road ahead of us, and managed to get some shots of them. A while after crossing the Brandy Nallah, we came to the bridge which divides J&K and Himachal. Ironic, since bridges bridge, and don’t divide, as a friend later pointed out.

The bridge was being repaired by a group of laborers, and while they fixed it, we marveled at the amount of hard work they put in to keep these roads motorable. They deserve the respect of the highest degree!

Also Read: How to Prepare your Car for Ladakh

Just as we crossed the bridge, and were about to reach Sarchu, we turned a corner and saw an overturned white Fortuner on the side of the road. Yes, OVERTURNED! Turned TURTLE! We were quite shocked and quickly stopped. Three men were standing next to the car and talking with a GREF officer.

The three men had been inside the Fortuner when it toppled and were thankfully unharmed. What they explained as the cause of the accident was very strange. The guy who was driving said that he was at a very slow speed and that as he turned the corner, the car lost control, skidded right, and toppled!

The story was quite scary, especially for a new car like Fortuner. Anyway, they’d arranged for a tow truck, so we moved on, but the sight of the overturned Fortuner is still vivid in our memories!

leh to sarchu

Sarchu

We reached Sarchu at 3:15 pm. It was time for a quick lunch of some delicious dal-chawal at one of the tents there. We met a biker there. He told us about the horrible state in which Baralacha La was. It took him some 8 hours to reach Sarchu from Darcha.

Also Read: What Clothes to Pack for Leh Ladakh

He also said that although it was difficult for small cars, our 4×4 Safari could cross easily, since the problematic stretch was only about 50m where a stream was literally flowing on the road. We realized that crossing the pass could be tricky, and hence rushed.

Approaching Sarchu​

leh to sarchu

Sarchu Plains​

leh to sarchu

Baralacha La

It was about 4 pm when we left Sarchu for Baralacha La. The day was progressing as per plan, and according to us, pretty soon we would cross the treacherous Baralacha La and stay the night at Jispa.

This would give us plenty of time the next day. We thought of doing the trek till Guru Ghantal Gompa at Tupchilling. Even then, we would be able to cross Rohtang at a reasonable time and reach Manali. Of course, plans on such trips often go haywire.

As we proceeded towards Baralacha La, we spotted a red Hyundai Accent parked on the roadside with a missing rear bumper! We thought it was pretty strange. Anyway, we moved on. Soon we came to a rather bad water-crossing, and we found the missing rear bumper of the poor Accent there!

Apparently, the guy was not able to negotiate the water-crossing properly and ended up losing his bumper. This was the condition of a nullah pretty close to Bharatpur.

Also Read: Baralacha La Pass – Status, Travel Guide & Sightseeing

The climb to Baralacha La began soon, the whole place was a freaking snow show. Kudos to the BRO guys to have opened the road at all this year. A bend later we found ourselves looking at a beeline of cars and trucks waiting for something. Oblivious of the peril ahead, we marched on only to find a section of the road missing up ahead.

Frozen​

baralacha la

baralacha la

Cars & oil tankers (a little further away) waiting for the road to clear​

leh to sarchu

The First Hurdle

Since we still had a couple of vehicles ahead of us, we could not really see the cause of the jam. So we went ahead, on foot, to gauge the situation.

Also Read: Things to Carry for Ladakh Trip

The first hurdle seemed pretty bad. A section of the road had been washed away by a raging, cold stream. But a part of it was still there, making a big bump partially hidden beneath the stream. One would have to carefully maneuver the vehicle at low RPM, yet high torque to gently avoid the bump and at the same time climb to the next “resting point”.

I moved up to the resting point to get a better view of the hurdle.

The first hurdle​

baralacha la pass

Looking back towards where we were from the first “resting” point​

baralacha la pass

The Second Hurdle

The second hurdle was not exactly a hurdle as such. It required simply wading through knee-deep water on a relatively flat patch with stones and pebbles underneath. After that one would have to cross a bridge, which was fine and wait at the “second resting point”.

Essentially that was the view up ahead from the first “resting” point, towards the next (where the gypsy is)​

baralacha la pass

The relatively easy second hurdle, as you see it’s much flatter​

leh to sarchu

The Final Hurdle

The final hurdle was UGLY. The ice on the road had melted and ice chunks had been crushed by crossing vehicles which had formed a knee-deep slush in the middle of the road.

It was bound by snow on both sides, thus the slush was essentially unavoidable. Further up, a part of the road was still covered by ice and was thus not able to give traction.

Also Read: How to Calculate your Budget for Ladakh Trip

The other part was covered in slush. So a vehicle that was able to gather momentum to clear this stretch, would essentially tilt to the hilt until its right tires stop getting any traction from the surface and the left get stuck in icy slush.

The icy slush on the road​

leh to sarchu

The left side of the road (as you see it) is icy while the right side slushy​

leh to sarchu

Change in Plans

I saw a vehicle (Tata Sumo) getting stuck in the slush. 5 people on either side of the vehicle had to rock it sideways until it could get out of the rut. They freed 3 vehicles this way and spent 30 min on each vehicle. I was confident that Kiyang could do this stretch since I’d seen a Gypsy and a Bolero (camper) doing it.

Owning a 4×4 gives you some luxuries, but the vehicles up ahead would not let us pass and attempt it. Slowly people started to turn back to Sarchu. We got closer to the bridge, awaiting our opportunity to try the stretch. That’s when an Innova, which was some three cars ahead of us, tried the stretch and made a complete mess of it!

It was quite obvious that the guy had no clue what he was supposed to do. It was already getting dark, and most of the rescue people had gone back. With the Innova stuck and no one to help, it was pretty much the end of the day. We waited for a while after which a bulldozer helped the poor Innova out of the rut, crushing its bumper completely.

But at least the occupants of the Innova did not have to spend the night in that freezing cold.

Also Read: Is Ladakh safe for Tourists?

Return to Sarchu

It was 8 pm when the BRO guy told us to go back to Sarchu. He was not going to allow any other vehicle to attempt the stretch now. We trudged back, hoping to find a place to spend the night. At Baralacha La, we had befriended a trio from Faridabad. They also came along with us back to Sarchu since it could’ve been difficult for them to cross the nullah we spoke about earlier in their car (a Swift) at that time.

We reached the Bharatpur tents by about 9:00 pm and managed to get tented accommodation there. It was too cold and dark for us to pitch our own tent. After a quick dinner and socializing with new friends later, we hit the sack to start early the next day. What a day it had been!

The next day gets even better. We crossed Baralacha La with a partially working braking system with brake fluid leakage happening without our knowledge. Since the low brake fluid warning lights were not working!

Leh to Sarchu – Conclusion

I hope the travelogue, pictures, and information above on traveling from Leh to Sarchu were of help. Please click on the link above to continue reading the next part of the travelogue. If you have any questions or need any other details, please feel free to ask in the comments section below, or at our Community Forum, and I will be glad to answer.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment