Ladakh and Zanskar - The Road Less Traveled

As I sat in a dhaba in Rangdum, a village in the middle of nowhere, drinking Cognac with a bunch of strangers, talking about nothing in particular, happy and at peace with myself, I couldn’t help thank God for bringing me on a road trip to Zanskar.

Ever since our visit to Ladakh last year, we had every intention to return to the land of high passes. The beauty of the vast Changthang plateau haunted us, and we’d planned to visit it again this year. However, as this year’s trip came closer, doubt crept into our minds.

Although there was no questioning our love for Changthang, visiting it again this year might make our trip too similar to the last one. Chanthang was not going anywhere, and we could always go back to it later. We decided that this year we would explore another part of Ladakh - the wild wild west.

The plan was to restrict ourselves to everything west of Leh - explore under-construction roads, trekking routes with motorable/ jeepable tracks, and most importantly, the remote Zanskar.

  • The Travellers: Aarti & Harsh
  • The Machine: Our very own wild ass - Tata Safari 4x4 - affectionately called Kiang
  • Total distance covered: 3850 km.

The following is the itinerary we followed.

Day 1: Delhi to Manali. 580 km in 12 hrs

Day 2: Manali to Jispa. 140 km in 14 hrs (surprised?)

Day 3: Jispa to Panginagu. 260 km in 13 hrs

Day 4: Panginagu to Leh. 220 km in 9 hrs

Day 5: Leh. Friends, dinners, and permits

Day 6: Leh. Hospital, medicines, and rest

Day 7: Leh to Lamayuru. Sham Valley Tour

Day 8: Lamayuru to Kargil via Batalik. 150 km in 6 hrs

Day 9: Kargil to Juldo. 150 km in 10 hrs

Day 10: Juldo to Padum. 140 km in 8 hrs

Day 11: Around Padum. End of Road - Zangla and Stongde. 130 km in 7 hrs

Day 12: Around Padum. Dzonkhul, End of the road beyond Reru. 135 km

Day 13: Padum to Kargil. 230 km in 11 hrs

Day 14: Kargil to Srinagar. 230 km in 10 hrs

Day 15: Around Srinagar. Wular lake and Gulmarg

Day 16: Srinagar to Jalandhar. 475 km

Day 17: Jalandhar to Delhi. 400 km

Day 1: Delhi - Manali (580 km, 12 hrs)

The night before the beginning of a trip is always a short one. It is almost impossible to put an over-active mind to rest and one twists and turns on the bed to fall asleep. So with limited sleep of just 3 hours, we finally left our flat in Vasant Kunj by 4 am.

The high point of the drive till Bilaspur was the drive-through Banur to avoid Chandigarh altogether. It must have shaved off at least an hour of our total drive till Manali. The road from Ropar till Kiratpur was also a pleasant surprise with the construction finally over and all flyovers complete. The lowest point, as is always, was the frustrating truck traffic between Kiratpur and Bilaspur.

After driving non-stop for 6.5 hours from Delhi, we decided to stop for breakfast in Bilaspur. Breakfast at our usual stop, the Lake View hotel, was decent. Aarti then took over the wheel while I settled for some shuteye. Without any further incidents, we reached Manali by 4 pm. It was a record run for us till Manali, bettering our previous best run by at least half an hour. I wonder if Manali would be possible in 11.5 hours after the construction work on NH-1 is complete.

As always, the next order of business was to reach Il Forno to have a late lunch. According to me, Il Forno serves not only the best pizzas in all of Himachal but in all of India. Not to exaggerate, but the pizzas served even at La Piazza do not come close to the ones made by Roberta. You must give it a try when in Manali if you love those thin-crust non-oily pizzas as we do.

It was cloudy when we reached Manali


Clouds imply a bad state of affairs at Rohtang.


Truly yours, Harsh


My wife, and co-traveler, Aarti


The dog at Il Forno, quite old, not too active but still very affectionate


The outside seating is better than the inside one on pleasant days at Il Forno


A macro shot of a flower at Il Forno


Don't remember these were tomatoes or something else!

The next course of action was to check in to “our” hotel, the Johnson’s Lodge at Manali. Since the HP government had decided to issue permits for non-HP registered vehicles to cross Rohtang, we had asked the hotel’s staff to arrange it for us. They had, thankfully, agreed to do so. That is when the owner dropped a bomb on us. She informed that Rohtang pass had been closed for a couple of days now and that no vehicles had been crossing over. Our primary reason for doing a Zanskar-centric trip via Manali, and not via Srinagar which would have made more sense, was to experience the Manali - Leh highway while going up, a thing that we had missed the last time around. Not ones to easily give up, we thought it would be best to speak to a couple of taxi owners on the Mall road before taking any further action. Meanwhile, as Aarti was busy checking in, I thought of making some good use of the light to capture the beautiful flowers in the garden near our room.

Some purple flower


Beautiful Petunias


Cozy seating for two in the garden


A bunch of whites


The Johnson's Lodge, Manali


A rose, ah, finally I got the name of one flower :D


A walk to the Mall road soothed our nerves a bit when we were informed that the pass is partially open with only jeeps able to make it through and that too with much difficulty. What was reassuring was that it was at least POSSIBLE to cross Rohtang, although difficult. After arranging for breakfast and filling up the tank, we went back to the hotel to hit the sack as early as possible. We knew that we must push off from Manali early the next morning to beat the morning rush. What we did not know, however, was that we had a very long and frustrating day ahead of us.

Day 2 : Manali to Jispa (140 kms, 14 hrs)

The day began on a wrong note altogether - no water in our room’s bathroom. And mind you the room was not cheap at 2500 bucks. I have my doubts if we’ll stay there again. Aarti, who has been in love with that hotel for many years now, of course, disagrees. Anyway, after running about and finally managing somehow, we left for Rohtang at 4:30 am. Satisfied that despite the water fiasco we did not get too late, we began the familiar climb to Rohtang. Much to our surprise, our permit was duly checked at Kothi by a policeman, who was wide awake even at that early hour. We reached Marhi by 6 am, and the road till there was excellent. However, that was the end of our good luck for the day.

That's Sachin's Scorpio which we first saw much before Marhi


Rohtang's climb was very pleasant until all hell broke loose.


This fall just before Marhi has its own charm

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As we looked above us from Marhi, we saw a line of vehicles standing still. At first glance, they seemed to be stone pillars at the edge of the road, but on getting a closer look, our hearts sank. They indeed were vehicles and not stones. Half an hour after Marhi, we hit the mother of all jams. It was only 6:30 in the morning, how could the jam already be so long, we wondered. That is when it struck us - these vehicles had been stuck since last night, or maybe even before that.

Thankfully, there were a few clouds that day


And that's the bloody queue.


A view of Marhi from above.


Paragliding and all other touristy activities continue uninterrupted.

I got out and walked a bit further, and then came back to tell Aarti that it was going to be a long day, with an initial estimate of 6 hours. In the next 8 hours, we moved about 4 km. In between the intermittent crawling, we chatted with the truck drivers around us, napped and ate chips, cursing Rohtang all the while. An interesting conversation also happened with a fellow BCMTian, Sachin (airwolf9211) who was also stuck in the jam in his Scorpio. He told me about his escapades in the interiors of Changthang and driving on roads that we crave to explore one day. Some people are just lucky to have their work lead them to places like these.

7 hours later, we finally reached the spot which was the root cause of the massive jam. The slush at Rani Nallah and before it was the worst we’d ever seen, and no car crossing the ugliest 100 m stretch was able to make it in one go. A dozer was stationed nearby, which was towing out all the vehicles from the slush. It was literally pushing the trucks out of the slush when they eventually got stuck after a futile momentum run. The poor taxis, however, were the worst hit. There was hardly any traction and pushing an Innova with a dozer would not have been the best of ideas.

A closer look at the ugly slush. Ugggh!


Doing a miserable stretch by gaining momentum. One vehicle at a time.


The ugliest stretch lies ahead.


It was hot as hell, and look how much clothing these guys were made to put on.

It was a royal mess, and although tired, we did not get frustrated and overall took the jam pretty well. Our destination for the day was Sarchu, but it soon dawned on us that there was no way we were going to make it there, lest we did some part of the drive post-sunset. This, however, was not an option as we wanted to take on the highway as much as we could in daylight. We re-evaluated our plan and decided to stay the night at Jispa. The plan was to reach Leh in 3 days from Manali and somethings would have to go off our itinerary in order to make up for the lost 8 hours. Well, that’s the Manali-Leh highway for you. Even the best-laid plans have to be changed at the last moment. And I guess that’s the beauty of it all.

We somehow made it to the top by 2:30 pm, after having crossed the final slushy stretch in one go, all thanks to the 4L mode that Safari offers. What was surprising though was that even with a 205 mm GC, some stones did hit the underbelly of our car. After a quick stop at the pass to check for leakages beneath the vehicle, we proceeded towards Jispa. Rohtang’s descent was much better than its ascent. The road was not good and was ridden with potholes, but at least it was not slushy.

This is still the worst stretch, it's difficult to shoot when the stretches are that bad.


Finally R-top.


The view towards Spiti.


Koksar lies up ahead.

Fabulous lunch of meat curry and rice happened at Koksar, the lovely, windy village after Gramphoo, known to be the coldest place in Lahaul. Thereafter, the road was like a runway, and even the fifth gear saw the light of day! A few kilometers after Koksar, just before Sissu, we saw the mouth of the Rohtang tunnel on the other side of the Chandra river, the sight of which, after the 8-hour ordeal we’d been through earlier in the day, was very pleasing. Aarti promised God that she would distribute sweets and also come to Manali the very day the tunnel opens. For the first time, I agreed that Rohtang was not worth all that pain. After ogling at the tunnel for a bit, we went on.

The Chandra river after Koksar.


Our savior, the other side of the Rohtang tunnel


A closer look at the tunnel

After a quick refueling stop at Tandi, we moved on towards Keylong. We tried to log on to the net and also call a few people to update them about our freedom from the horrible jam, but the network was patchy, and we couldn’t. We finally reached Jispa around 6:30 pm and headed straight for the Padma Lodge, where we’d stayed way back in 2008 when it was still under construction.

Gyanphang peak, above Gondla village - little snow left.


The biker in this shot added to the charm according to me.


Chandra spreads wide after Sissu, at least for a while.


A quaint village on the other side of Chandra. No roads, but still there's prosperity.


The road runs almost level with the river after Gondla, just before Tandi


The confluence of Chandra and Bhaga rivers, to make the mighty Chenab.


Another prosperous village after Koksar in the valley on the other bank of the river.

After checking in, we went down to the river and were totally floored by its beauty. The way the beautiful Bhaga spreads out at Jispa is stunning. The icing on the cake was the early moonrise, which captured the attention of our cameras for quite some time.

The Padma Lodge is a lovely place with nice and clean rooms and a charming dining room on the first floor. And guess what, it does serve beer for those who are interested.

The Lodge has two buildings, and both are almost equally priced. We got to know later that Rahul Gandhi had done the Manali - Leh highway last year, and stayed at the same lodge.

Moon-rise was spectacular.


The peaks beyond Darcha as seen from Jispa.


This poor cow was tied up like a dog by its owner


We went for a walk to the river, it was nice.


Dying rays of the sun at Jispa


A closer look at the moon


The Padma Lodge (new wing)




The day comes to a close now


Jispa by itself could be a destination, I think.


Although pretty tired, I could not bear the sight of Kiyang all muddy after Rohtang and mustered some strength to clean it. After my hard work, the shiny and clean Kiyang was all the reward I needed. We then had dinner, and hit the sack, listening to Bhaga’s pleasant roar.