We have met some interesting and wonderful people during our travels, in fact it is one of our favourite things about traveling. But none have had such a profound impact on us, as the beautiful Canadian couple we met in Mcleod Ganj, India. After the typical travel small talk determining where we were from and how we managed to find ourselves in the northern mountains of India, we discovered that they had just returned from a 6 day motorbike ride through the Himalayas. We soon realised we had read about this trip, but had decided that “one of the most dangerous roads in the world” might be a bit outside of our comfort zone. However, these two daredevils were so blasé about the whole experience, and having heard that they had never ridden a bike before (a detail we now strongly question), we decided that we simply had to give it a try. We booked our bus tickets to Manali, and left the next day.
While we later cursed those two Canadians, and their utterly insane recommendation, the journey from Manali to Leh and back again was one of the toughest, most amazing, and definitely the wildest thing we have ever done. So if you are reading this, you crazy Canadians, thank you. Thank you for talking us into the most incredible experience of our lives.
So why, do you ask, should you attempt this perilous journey? Not only did we witness the most breathtakingly beautiful sceneries, sleep surrounded by a blanket of stars, meet the kindest people, taste the sweetest chai, and eat the most delicious Momo’s known to mankind; but we got to experience it all from the back of our trusted motorbike, “Merlot”. Yes, the roads were rough and sometimes utterly terrifying. Yes, riding for 6 hours through rain and freezing cold weather was exhausting. Yes, we both suffered from altitude sickness and wanted to quit at least once along the way. But, all the tough moments made the beautiful moments that much more remarkable, and we would do it all again in a heartbeat.
So, now that we have convinced you to go on this adventure, here’s how you do it:
The Manali-Leh Highway connects Leh, in Ladakh, to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. The 490km long highway is ONLY open for about four months of the year. The road opens in the summer months (when the snow melts) between May-June and mid October (when snow blocks the passes again).
Rent a bike
The first thing you will need is a bike. We did quite a bit of research on a reliable bike rental shop. While we are budget backpackers, there are some things we’d rather not skimp on, and a bike that would make it safely from Manali to Leh in one piece, is one of them. We ended up renting our bike from Epic Moto Tours for 1200 Rupees per day. Merlot was a Royal Enfield 350cc and, although she did struggle with the altitude at some points, she was easy to drive and we had no problems with her.
[Note: you will need a permit (and your passport) to get through the various passes along the way. Epic Moto Tours organised ours for us and it cost about 100 Rupees].
Pack your bags
You will be carrying everything you pack on your bike so keep it as light as you can. We left a lot of our stuff at our hostel in Manali, and we still definitely had way too much. You will be able to do some washing in Leh, so you’ll only need about 2-3 sets of clothes.
The last refuelling station is in Tandi so make sure you have two 5 litre bottles filled with petrol as a back up (you probably will only use one 5L along the way, but its always a good idea to have extra reserves).
While we love that this was a very spontaneous adventure, it does mean we didn’t plan much and we were not very prepared for it, AT ALL. Here are a few items we suggest you bring along (and wish we had brought with us):
Waterproof jacket AND pants: we learnt this one the hard way. We only had jackets and about 5 minutes into our first day, were completely soaked and freezing cold. We managed to find a vendor selling cheap rain suits (thank goodness). Although, it may not rain on your trip, it will definitely be cold, so you will be grateful for the extra layer anyway.
Gloves: who doesn’t get gloves when motorbiking through the cold Himalayan mountains? Hmm, that would be us. Don’t make the same mistake and get yourselves some nice warm gloves to keep your fingers toasty.
Visit your doctor and get Diamox to prevent altitude sickness: we never even considered the possibility of altitude sickness, like I said, we really didn’t do our homework for this trip. Well, altitude sickness is REAL my friends, and it is NOT FUN! Do yourselves a favour and take those little pills BEFORE you begin your ascent (you usually start about 2 days before you begin climbing altitude).
Snacks: although you can buy food along the way at various restaurants and vendors, we found the choices were pretty minimal so if you have favourites that you cannot live without then definitely add those to your bags (eating regularly also helps with altitude sickness).
The 490km journey from Manali to Leh covers everything from lush green hillsides, snow capped mountains, arid planes, and vast rocky ridges that make you feel like you are on Mars. It is a unique and mesmerising part of the world.
Although it is possible to do the entire trip to Leh in two days we would definitely not suggest this. Not only will you rush through an experience that needs to be savoured, but you will also probably get altitude sickness if you don’t give your body time to acclimatise. We completed the entire trip from Manali to Leh and back again in 9 days, but it can definitely be done in 7 (we suggest setting aside at least 8 days and then adjusting it according to how you feel).
There are various accommodation options along the way, from homestays, to tented camps and hotels (only in the bigger villages). We definitely recommend staying in the tented camps. Not only is it likely to be a bit cheaper than the hotels, but it also adds to the whole experience and the meals (usually included in the price) are exactly what you need after a long day on the bike.
We have put together a rough guideline of the route from Manali to Leh and back again:
Day 1: Manali- Jispa (139km, ~4 hours)
Your first day of riding will take you through the lush green Rohtang pass (3890m), and further north where the scenery becomes more dry and arid. Make sure you fill up on petrol in Tandi (2573m) as this is the LAST petrol station along the highway. Take your time on your first day, get used to your bike and stop to take in the incredible views and warm up with some hot Chai from the local Dhaba’s (road-side eatery) along the way. Spend your first night in Jispa (3320m). We stayed in a tented camp by the river called Jispa Journeys.
Day 2: Jispa – Pang (159km, ~6 hours)
Day 2 will take you from Jispa to Pang (4600m). This was by far our toughest day as the road between Sarchu and Pang is really terrible and we were totally exhausted by the time we arrived in Pang (we were now also beginning to feel the effects of the increased altitude). We stayed with a lovely family who made the most delicious Momo’s (unfortunately we really can’t remember the name of their little place).
You can choose to break this trip up by spending the night in the tented camps in Sarchu (4290m) before heading to Pang for the third night. We did this on the way back and found it much easier and more enjoyable.
Day 3: Pang – Leh (175km, ~5 hours)
On day 3 you will reach your highest altitude on the Taglang La pass (5328m). This was our easiest day as we went across the Moore Plains (4730m) along the Taglang La pass and on through Upshi (3480m) to Leh (3500m).
Day 4: Leh (rest day)
Take the fourth day to rest, enjoy a hot shower (there are no hot showers along the way) and get some laundry done. If you have the energy head off to explore the surreal city of Leh or, if you aren’t sick of being on a bike, head off to explore the beautiful Pangong Lake. By this stage we were really not feeling great and spent the entire day in bed wishing we had researched altitude sickness before we started the trip. We stayed in Hotel Bimla. It was nothing fancy but for 900 Rupees we were happy for a soft bed and a hot shower.
Day 5: Leh – Rumste (80km, ~1,5 hours)
By day 5 we were still feeling weak, dizzy, nauseous, and had headaches. So we decided to take it slow and did a short trip to Rumste (4260m) where we spent the day resting and exploring the small village.
Day 6: Rumste – Pang (95km, ~2 hours)
Our sixth day took us from Rumste back to Pang where we stayed with the same sweet family.
Day 7: Pang – Sarchu (76km, ~4 hours)
On day 7 we once again headed through the terrible road and the 22 hairpin bends that make up the Gata Loops (4190m). This time we decided to break up the trip to Jispa and stayed in an awesome tented camp in Sarchu, called Adventure Camp Sarchu.
Day 8: Sarchu – Jispa (84km, ~1,5 hours)
We headed back to Jispa and enjoyed our last night along the river at Jispa Journeys.
Day 9: Jispa – Manali (139km, ~6 hours)
Our last day took us back to Manali where we enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of accomplishment and celebrated with a well deserved feast, a hot shower and comfortable bed.
Our journey from Manali to Leh was one we will never forget. It is just another reminder of the incredible things that can happen when you step outside of your comfort zone.
If you do the trip please share your experience with us in the comments below, we'd love to hear about it.