The road from Manali to Leh is as beautiful as it can be terrifying. The road is only open four and a half months of the year, as snow makes crossing the high mountain passes impossible, and is 479km long. Our starting point at Manali lies at 2050m metres above sea level, and at its highest point, the road reaches 5328m at the Tanglang La Pass, essentially as high as Everest Base Camp. You eventually settle in Leh at 3500m.
The first stretch of road from Manali is lush and green, and wild flowers spill through and over the rocky hills. But the landscape changes dramatically after the first mountain pass (the Rohtang Pass). Incidentally, the word Rohtang means 'pile of corpses', named so due to the deaths of people trying to cross the pass in bad weather. We hope this is now only a historical term. The ground becomes dry and dusty, with seemingly more rock than road. There are patches of green but as one drives, the view becomes increasingly bleached, increasingly dry, and increasingly vast.
The road can be pretty harrowing, and the hair pin turns had us at times instinctively holding our breath. The quality of the road is extremely poor in parts, largely unsealed with potholes and large rocks scattering the road. After climbing hundreds of metres, and looking down into the ravines, the land is littered with enormous shards of rock, but from so high, they look more like small, brittle flakes.
The mountains continue to fill your view and have a monumental presence. It's no wonder that mountains are so often respected as sites of spiritual and sacred importance, as they appear to touch the sky and stand so powerfully, seemingly unmoving and ancient.
The drive allows you to appreciate the isolation of Ladakh, and marvel at the numerous nomads and merchants who used to cross the barren mountain passes with their caravans. The drive allows you to appreciate the changes in landscape, and of course, remember the unyielding power of nature and your vulnerability to it. We were graced with good weather and health for our journey to Leh, it could so easily not have been the case. Though the two days of travelling, 24 hours of driving with an overnight stop, were tough, it was perhaps the only way to understand and appreciate the way that landscape (perhaps more so historically) so much dictates the nature of ones life.
Photos by Ben Journee