The pictures in this story scarcely capture about one percent of the beauty of this place. There probably are quite a few who would have driven the Manali to Leh road. But what most people don’t know about is a drive that, to my mind, is even better – the Manali to Shimla drive through Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur.
First, we’ll take you through what you need to make this trip. The most important part of this trip is your car. A car with a higher ground clearance is the preferred choice. Get your mechanic to install a sump guard. And before you start your drive, look very carefully at the underside and note the lowest point of your car. You also need to do some shopping. Get two or three extra tubes for your tyre, even if you are running tubeless. Puncture repair facilities on this route are few and far between. And even when you do find one, chances are that they will not have facilities to repair a tubeless tyre. You can always put in a tube in a tubeless tyre and continue. Carrying a second spare wheel is also a good idea.
Carry a metal Jerry Can for fuel; try and get an army-issue if you can. The fumes leaking out from a plastic Jerry can can make you nauseated. If you can’t get hold of a metal one, don’t worry. But remember to try and tank up at every pump you see. Again, pumps in this area are few and far between. In case you get stuck somewhere, you could get a tow back from a passing vehicle.
Make a list of all the essentials you will need in case you have to spend a night out in the mountains in your car. This includes food, water, medicines and clothes. Here’s the conundrum – packed with all this luggage, the car will sit lower than usual, eating into precious ground clearance. So two people to a vehicle, at the most three, is ideal.
Here’s the most important tip. Even if your name is Colin McRae, have a second driver. The terrain is tough, the land is inhospitable, weather and road conditions can be lethal. You cannot drive safely here unless you are 100 percent focussed. And even an upset stomach in these high altitudes can incapacitate you badly. So have a backup driver.
If you can, get a BSNL connection. Or be prepared for no mobile connectivity from the time you pass Rohtang till the time you reach Spillow.
Here are some tips on driving on this route. Remember, ‘rubber over rocks’. Getting the bigger rocks under your tyre will keep them away from hitting parts of your undercarriage where they can break something and ground your car. Even if the rock cuts your tyre, it is easier to repair than fixing something like your sump.
Don’t follow other people’s ruts. They most probably might have been gouged out by trucks that have a much higher clearance. Keep your wheels on the raised surface to protect the car’s underbody.
Slow and steady is the mantra. Manali to Kaza is just 200km, but it will take you about 12 hours behind the wheel to cover the distance. Don’t hurry. Enjoy the drive by staying safe.
Most important of all, don’t panic. Keep a cool and calm head and you will be okay. Begin your drive every day as early as you can. This gives you buffer time in case there are roadblocks, or if something goes wrong with your car. It also ensures that the water crossings are less severe – the snow melts as the day’s temperature increases – so there’s more water for you to deal with.
There are two ways to do this drive. One is to begin from the Shimla end and go to Manali. Or do it the other way round. There are pros and cons to both. If you drive up from the Shimla side, you climb up gradually and will not be as affected by Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. If you begin your journey from Manali, you will be going from 6,730 feet to 14,930 feet in a day to cross Kunzum La. So AMS is a big danger.
Driving up from the Shimla side is like a musical composition that slowly rises in crescendo and it reaches its peak as you reach Spiti and then Kunzum La. But just in case Rohtang is closed for any reason, you will be stuck in the middle of nowhere in your car.
Driving in from the Manali side gives you the option of returning to civilisation if Rohtang gets closed. On our drive, we entered via Manali, only because I was impatient, and wanted to experience the full glory of Spiti as soon as possible. If you are one of those go-getters who cannot get time off, here’s the good news. In a crux you can do this trip in four days. Manali to Kaza. Kazo to Nako. Nako to Sangla. Sangla to Shimla. Or Thanedar, that’s just 80km and two hours short of Shimla, but it is a fantastic place. If you live in Delhi, factor in a day to get to Manali and a day to get back. But if you really want to soak it in, give it about two weeks.
From Manali, your first stop is Kaza. The biggest hurdle standing between you and Kaza is Rohtang Pass. It connects Kulu valley with Lahaul and Spiti valleys. This is where the snow-line begins and it’s a very popular tourist destination for people holidaying in Manali. If you are visiting in peak season, like when schools are on vacation, you are certainly looking at a traffic jam going up to Manali. The drive up is spectacular, going through pines, deodhar and silver oaks. The road condition till Marhi is fantastic. There are dhabas and restaurants here. And this is about the last place for a long time that you will find a proper toilet. It’s just a few kilometres prior to the top of Rohtang at Rani Nallah, where you may get stuck. Depending on the weather, the road can become a slush-pit. But once past this hurdle, the road is black tarmac all the way up.
Rohtang, at just over 13,000 feet, is not too high by Himalayan standards, but it gets its deadly reputation due to the unpredictable weather here.
Rohtang is a carnival teeming with tourists riding ponies and ATVs, gobbling Maggi and tea. Once you leave this behind is when you really are in the stride of your drive. Nearly 16km ahead is Gramphoo where the road bifurcates. Continue straight and you will reach Leh. But you have to turn right for Spiti. About an hour from Gramphoo is Chatru, with a population of a 100 people. Here again you will find some tea shops selling basic snacks and the omnipresent Maggi. Rohtang to Chatru is about 33km, but it will take you nearly two and a half hours to cover the distance.
The drive between Chatru and Chota Dhara is spectacular, through a field of rocks. Further down the road is Batal, from where the climb to Kunzum La begins. Kunzum La is at 14,931 feet above sea level. This is the highest point in your journey. Despite the spectacular view, don’t stop here for too long or you will get altitude sickness. About an hour from Kunzum La you will see a gate welcoming you to Spiti Valley. This is Losar, and you have to register with the police here. It’s a fairly simple procedure where they take down your name, license and car details. From here to Kaza, you will make relatively good time, and you should be able to cover the 60km distance in about two hours.
Kaza is the administration and transport hub of the Spiti subdistrict. There is a lot to see and do around Kaza. Depending on your schedule, you could spend anything up to three or four days here.
At Langza you will find fossils of marine creatures at over 13,000 feet. There are also lots of interesting monasteries around here, including Key Gompa, the biggest monastery and Buddhist learning centre in Spiti Valley. Gompa is a Buddhist monastery. It houses 800-year-old Thangka paintings, murals, musical instruments and several carefully preserved manuscripts – many of which were brought centuries ago from Tibet. You can also visit the monastery at Komic, that could be nine millennia old, and maybe the world’s highest, where you will be greeted by a stuffed snow leopard.
Another great excursion from Kaza is to the Pin Valley. Pin Valley is connected to Spiti Valley by a solitary bridge across Pin River. Most of the valley has been declared a National Park. It is a natural habitat for endangered species like the Snow Leopard, Himalayan Ibex, Wooly Hare and Red Fox.
Less than 50km from Kaza is the village of Tabo. It will take you about two hours to cover the distance. Tabo is the home of a monastery founded in AD 996. It is considered to be the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India and the Himalayas. Within the ancient monastery’s compound are nine temples built between the late 10th and the 17th century, and numerous stupas. The simple brown sand and mud structures stand out magically against the clear blue sky. It’s very different from the rich ornate monasteries we are used to seeing. The beauty of this monastery lies inside; a virtual treasure trove of old murals, its original decoration and art images intact.
And here is a little-known secret. The best apples in India come from Tabo. If you are here during apple season, get yourself as many crates as your boot can hold.
The drive from Tabo to Nako will take about another two hours. About 30km down the road is Sumdoh, where you say goodbye to Spiti and hello to Kinnaur. Here again you have to record your entry at the police check post. Nako is about 35km down the road. Remember that the road conditions here can change month to month.
Nako is not even a village. Rather, it’s a small hamlet with a few places to stay and a couple of restaurants. At the heart of Nako is a lake. Though now surrounded by a concrete embankment, it is still an oasis of serenity. Take a walk into Nako village and you will believe you have traveled back in time. Apart from the solar-powered light poles, you could be living in the last century, or even before that.
Nako to Sangla should take about five and a half hours. As you drive, the barren mountains that have accompanied you past Rohtang slowly start giving way to green foliage, until you are surrounded by a lush forest by the end of the day’s drive. The road between Nako and Spillow is pretty good except for a bad stretch after Pooh. If you have been cut off from the world after Rohtang, this is where you again reconnect with the world and your phone will again catch the network. And for the next 20km you will find a nice double-lane road till it again deteriorates at Kharo Bridge. Remember to register with the police check-post at Akpa about 15km from Spillow.
There is an HP pump at Powari, about 100km from Nako, but it was closed when we got there since they had no fuel to sell! But don’t worry, there is an IOCL pump at Sangla about 27km away.
Staying at Sangla means staying at the Banjara Camps in Sangla. I have always found that the best and the most hospitable hotels are always due to the personal touch of their owners. It’s a personal touch that no five-star chain can match.
The Banjara Camp is located on the banks of the river Baspa. In fact, some years ago the river changed course and took away parts of Banjara’s land. You could very well just kick up your legs and do nothing, and take in the magnificent views. If you feel a little more active, walk over to Batseri village. This little village manages to hang on to its rural charms despite the march of modernity. You will find neat cobbled paths, houses made of wood and stone and the exquisite Badri Narayan temple. Think of a ‘model’ village, and this is it.
A popular excursion from Sangla is a drive to Chitkul. Chitkul, at an altitude of 11,318 feet, is a 26km drive from Sangla. It is the last settlement on the old Hindustan–Tibet trade route.
Many of the houses here still display the traditional architecture with wood and slate roofs. But modernity is catching up with tin roofs and concrete structures. In Chitkul you will also find ‘Hindustan ka Aakhiri Dhaba’.
The last leg of the trip will take you back to Shimla. Or rather, to Thanedar, just two hours short of Shimla. On a personal note, Shimla to me looks like a festering wound on the mountainside, and I am only too glad to give it a miss in favour of the soothing charms of Thanedar. The drive should take you about five hours. If you zero your trip at the Banjara parkingin Sangla, look out for a sharp U-turn on your left going up, at about the 128km mark on your tripmeter. This is a shortcut to Thanedar, and easy to miss.
This is one spectacular drive you don’t want to miss.