Manali to Leh, Part I: Crossing rivers and high altitude passes

I’ve wanted to make my way into the Kashmir region of India for a long time, and on a motorcycle has to be the best way to experience it. Deep up in the western Himalaya lies a magical place, a sort of heaven, or another planet altogether. The adventure to Leh/Ladakh started from Manali at 4:30AM. I had read everywhere that you needed to start-up the first pass early or you’d get stuck in the mob of Indian tourists going up to see snow. Turns out they’ve created a permit system that limits the amount of people per day, and the majority of the snow is gone from the first pass (Rohtang La). Foreigners have to get a permit to go over the pass, but its free and easy to obtain from Manali. The good part about starting so early is I had the road to myself and got to see a peaceful sunrise from up top. The bad part is in the rush out of the hotel I left both pairs of sunglasses on the ground. Gift to Manali. As the road twisted higher, I reached the bottom of the cloud cover.

Eventually I popped out on top looking over the top of the clouds I rode beneath a short time before. Snow and mountain peaks appeared around me. Up higher another splattering of clouds shined bright with the morning sun contrasted against the deep blue alpine sky.


The top of the first pass was reached. Rohtang La would be one of the easiest ones, but still exciting to climb over. At 13,054 ft (3,979m) it was the first step in the stair case of the Himalaya I was about to ascend.


The other side of the pass gave a glimpse of what was to come. A landscape that makes you feel very small. Once into the mountains, Buddhism takes hold and stupas begin to appear.


A terrible road leads down the other side horse shoeing its way to the valley below. It’s completely torn and mucked up, but doesn’t matter when you’re looking out over the beauty before you. The drivers continue to amaze me. There are spots where only one vehicle can get through at a time. I pulled up to a line of traffic where everybody was outside their cars hanging about. I parked and walked up to the front of it and found an old-fashioned Mexican standoff. A bus coming up the hill was refusing to back up and there were about twenty vehicles sitting in front of him trying to get down, including me. The driver sat in his seat calmly and everyone mingled outside their cars like nothing was going on. I managed to sneak by them all. The last I could see of it they were still sitting waiting on each other.


After curling your way to the river valley below, the little shacks start popping up with hot steamed momos.

The road follows the gorgeous valley along a pale gray river with snow-capped peaks on each side.

A gorgeous blue sky morning after all the heavy rain and dreary skies.


Locals work hard to keep the amazing roads protected from mother nature as the old guys watch and judge their effort.


The scenery adds a level of grandeur as you continue along and it starts to feel like you’ve entered a special place. Small villages are tucked away in little nooks and glaciers sneak down before melting into the river below. The locals grow cauliflower, potatoes, and much more in the fertile soil along the banks. Massive waterfalls gush out of the rock face like dam gates have been opened.





As you go deeper into the mountains you start to feel more and more isolated and free at the same time. Soon you get your last chance to buy petrol for the next 365 km.

The valley begins to narrow and steepen, which sends you up onto the steep cliffs with amazing views. Natures immensity and power here is breathtaking.





Eventually you come back down to a familiar wider river valley with perfect roads shaped to the rivers every curve. Something made me think of my front brake pads, maybe the strange noises, and I remembered they were pretty low (in Myanmar). They ended up being more than a little low, but about completely toast. A beautiful day to change some brake pads.

I found a nice little grassy spot along a raging river in the tiny village of Darcha tucked between tall peaks. Waters from separate rivers converged into one here. The Ladakhi community is sweet and had no problem with me making a home for the night. They cook up some delicious Thukpa. The lightening and rain came through heavy that night.

The morning brought cloudy skies and a road leading up out of the valley. Even in this rough landscape a different type of beauty managed to pop through.


The second day brings on some river crossings, which can get pretty sketchy. Especially as the day goes on when the snow begins to melt and runoff increases. At one of the worse ones a Tata truck had almost gone over the edge and was teetering. Can’t let it hold us up though and all the smaller vehicles gave it a go. I heard later on that a lot of people got stuck behind it that day.


Many more were to come, but my bike chomped right through them with no problem. I learned to not get shoes full of water I had to hold the legs up high around the gas tank.

After the water crossing adventures, it was time to head up to another pass. The road gracefully leads up a wide valley.

All along these roads are the heroes that make it all possible. Young kids to old men wrestle with nature and give us amazing roads to explore. Bro (Border Roads Organization) is in charge of all the efforts. These workers come from other states in India where they have no opportunities. They make meager wages, but are making a living. Their hard work really makes it all possible. A lot of the roads they have built at these elevations are better that any Indian road I’ve driven on down in the cities.




Close to the top I met a group of Sikhs from Punjab who are doing the massive loop on bicycles.

Just before the pass, a beautiful blue/green lake is nestled down into the rocky slopes.


Me and Christmas dog made it to the top of our second pass, Baralacha La at 15,912 ft (4850m). The fun had just begun.




About Trueworldtravels

Following my heart around the planet. Bringing to life the unique world around us through writing and photography.
This entry was posted in adventure travel, Kashmir, Kawasaki KLR650, Motorcycle world travel, NW india travel, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Manali to Leh, Part I: Crossing rivers and high altitude passes

  1. Rose says:

    I love your stories and following you.. Amazing pictures.. Love and Miss you Gerl 🙂 Be safe!!! Rose


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