The journey to Leh has become one of the most talked about and most done trips of our generation and lifetime, and quite rightfully so. Starting from Kullu/Manali, the road trip is nothing short of a pilgrimage, with long waits for the great Himalayan passes to open; the punishing yet breathtaking terrain, and the gradual arrival at the destination – Leh, as oasis of succor in the bleak universe of desert mountains and rarefied air.
However, it’s not just the destination that matters. On this fabled route lie several villages and towns that deserve much more than a cursory gander, while being perfect enough to camp in for a night or two.
Since its discovery, Manali has greeted overlanders with its abundant greenery and exquisite scenery. A primary reason Indian tourists come to Manali is to experience their first snow on the mighty Rohtang Pass. 51 kms away, Rohtang Pass (3978 m) was not always the all season playground of the plain dwellers; pre historic folks in Kullu Valley believed that the world ended at the mighty mountains that the pass now spans across. Unexpected blizzards and landslides atop Rohtang have earned it its mystical name that eerily translates to “Heap Dead Bodies” in Tibetan.
Despite its formidable size and notoriety, Rohtang is one scenically stunning Himalayan Pass. On this natural watershed, the road curves and bends among evergreen alpine meadows, revealing eye level mountain views at sunrise, apart from the perpetual possibility of snow. In spite of its mythical character, Rohtang Pass remains an underrate pass among travelers on the road to Leh. But not for long, as you cross and see the parallel world it retains beyond its great barriers.
At the turn off point of Gramphu, to the east lies the Spiti valley, and to the north-west the Lahaul valley – a largely unexplored land steeped in an intoxicating blend of myth, beauty and extreme landscapes. A quick descent of 5 kms brings you to Khoksar. This small hamlet consists of little more than several dhabas, a police checkpoint and several warm hearted locals who willingly offer advice and aid on the onward journey. It’s a great place to tuck into a hot lunch by the waterfall.
Leaving Khoksar, the road splits across a hardened valley floor, with sheer cliffs dominating either side of the Chandra River. Sissu is revered for the temple of Lord Gyephang (the protector god of the Lahaulis), the Gyephang Peak and the famed hanging waterfall.
18 kms further is Lahaul’s biggest town – Keylong, set against a backdrop of brown hills and snowy peaks. The Bhaga River nourishes this side valley, roaring from its source in Baralacha La, and it is a pretty sight to see the willows on her banks. Keylong is the official overnight stop for travelers, and many stay back to explore. One can usually come across scores of happily hyper kids here.
Jispa, 22 km ahead, is a small village that is big on camping sites and trout fishing, thanks to its pleasant setting next to the Bhaga. There’s decent accommodation available, and locals cook up basic meals on request (read Maggi and Lemon Tea). From here onwards, trees start disappearing.
At first sight, Darcha appears to be an unpromising junction, but it’s the last permanent settlement, and the trailhead for a number of astounding treks into Zanskar and Leh. Barring the dhabas, there is no accommodation here. From here, the wooded greens of Lahaul fade into stark mountain terrain and the next set of trees will be seen in Rumtse, 80 kms from Leh.
The way forward in next post..