THE ROAD FROM Manali (Himachal Pradesh) to Leh (Ladakh), cutting through the Indian Himalayas, is one of the world’s highest motorable roads. The classic method of travel is on a Royal Enfield motorbike.
The Enfield, an originally British bike still manufactured in the Enfield Factory in the Indian city of Chennai, is the perfect vehicle for this route: it’s a dinosaur, but it knows how to handle the rough spots.
Most of the 475km is at an altitude of 3,000m or higher and includes mountain passes that top out at 5,000+. The road usually opens for traffic in May or June and closes for the winter around October, depending on snowfall. Conditions can be extremely dicey: glacial-melt floods and landslides are common, and the Himalayan weather is unpredictable.
This trip is not for beginners. Fatal accidents involving bikers occur every year and local medical care is wanting.
Where to Break
It takes most bikers 2-3 days to cover the 475km distance. There are five main passes between Manali and Leh, with the highest being Tanglang La at 5,328m — last one before your final destination. The first pass, Rohtang La, is busy with Indian daytrippers heading up to see the snow, but from there on out traffic consists mainly of Indian army vehicles and cargo trucks.
A good place for your first overnight is Keylong, a small town at just over 3,000m that’ll let you acclimatise in preparation for the higher passes. Keylong offers a choice of guesthouse and hotels — anywhere else and you’re looking at a tent camp.
There are several tent dhabas (good for a cheap meal) on the road to Leh and many of them have a few beds. The high-altitude tent camps in Sarchu are where most choose to stop for the second night. There are “luxury tent camps” that offer two-bed tents with toilets, along with cheaper tents made of old parachutes that come with dubious mattresses and no toilets or washing facilities.
The distance between Sarchu and Leh can be covered in one long day of driving, and the scenery on this route is stunning. After Sarchu the Gata Loops ascend in a series of 21 hairpin curves up to Lachalung La, followed by a surreal ride through the canyons in the Gorges of Pang.
A drive across the high-altitude Morey Plateau precedes a long climb to Tanglang La, and then the steep descent to Leh.
Acute Mountain Sickness
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS; also known as altitude sickness) is a serious risk on this route.There’s no way to predict who will suffer from AMS and how bad it’ll get, but most of those prone to AMS will start to feel it at around 3,000-3,500m.
Symptoms can include headaches, sleeplessness, breathlessness, loss of appetite, and a dry irritating cough, and if ignored, AMS can be fatal. The only way to prevent it is to ascend slowly and take time to acclimatise. If symptoms are severe, immediate descent is recommended.
The problem on this route is that after Baralacha La, at 4,950m and not even halfway to Leh, the road doesn’t descend below 4,000m until after Tanglang La, the last pass. The night in Sarchu, at around 4,200m, is usually the most challenging.
What to Bring
Pack light, but bring waterproof and warm clothes and a good sleeping bag for the night in Sarchu. Helmets and protective gear are not compulsory in this part of India but are highly recommended.
Snacks are good, since the average tent dhaba menu includes mainly dhal, rice, and omelets or Maggi noodles. Bring sunglasses and apply high SPF sunscreen to prevent sunburns when on the bike.
Don’t forget the petrol — after Manali the last pump is in the village of Tandi, 365km from Leh. It’s essential to carry spare petrol (or find an XL tank with a capacity of around 25 liters) as motorbikes consume more petrol at high altitudes.
It’s also necessary to be able to fix basic bike problems. Although the Enfield is a great choice for Ladakh’s awful roads, they break down often and require a lot of care, and there are no mechanics on this route. Spare parts you might need include an inner tube, a spark plug, a throttle, clutch, and front brake cable, and a spare bulb for the headlight.
If the bike breaks down and you can’t fix it, you’ll have to find a truck driver willing to transport it to Leh, and this is an expensive option.
This article was originally published on January 19, 2010.