After spending almost 6 weeks in India’s northern-most state, including 2 in and around the Leh region, when we finally decided to head back south down the Leh Manali Highway, it was a little depressing. But Leh wasn’t willing to let go of us that easily either – the Rohtang Pass, which lay like a huge obstacle course on the road to Manali kept getting snowed over causing it to shut down every other day! Many travelers had to reschedule their plans a number of times before they were able to get out. As for us, since we didn’t have a fixed itinerary we just hung around till J&K Tourism’s bus service to Manali resumed. And when that happened, we booked ourselves on their July 17th bus, which was to leave at 5am and reach Manali the following evening, with an overnight stay in Keylong.
The bus started off on time with about 11 of us onboard and then picked up a couple of locals along the way. We had read that the route was quite scenic and it indeed was! So much so that Madhu and I wished we had arranged a private car instead, so that we could stop and take pictures along the way. Thankfully, the bus at least stopped at Tanglang La for a photo break. At 5359m, Ladakhis claim Tanglang La to be the second highest motor-able pass in the world! This is highly disputed but that doesn’t take away from the fact, it is darned high up there. Later the bus stopped for lunch near a string of tea shops, which seemed to be sitting in the middle of nowhere – it was a gorgeous setting!
Although food was never a problem throughout the ride, we women had the toughest time as there were no toilets (at least none usable) anywhere along the 2-day road. The only saving grace was the remoteness of the landscape: we managed to find a few secluded spots to take care of business.
Our first night’s halt, Keylong turned out to be a picturesque village with the Bhaga river flowing beneath it. The terraced fields along its banks looked green and very fertile. The tiny homes looked neat, well-built and almost wealthy; we were quite impressed! Again, for the second time in the day, we wished we had arranged a private car so that we could have stayed longer and explored the place. We noticed many cute guesthouses, which would have been perfect for a couple of nights’ stay!
The bus pulled into HPTDC’s Hotel Chandra Bhaga, which lies just off the main highway. Our ticket, which was priced at Rs.2000 per head, included an overnight stay in this hotel as well as dinner and breakfast the following morning. The stay had been advertised to be in tents, which Madhu and I were not averse to. We were told that we could use the common bathroom facilities provided by the hotel and that had sounded reasonable too. But after the long, bumpy, tiring ride when we saw the tents lined up one next to the other and the not-so-nice common bathrooms, Madhu and I paid Rs.700 extra for a double-room in the hotel; we were dying for a comfortable bed, a clean bathroom and a hot shower!
The following morning the bus left at 8am sharp and we looked forward to a short, easy drive to Manali as it was only about 130kms away. The previous day we had covered almost 360kms in 10hrs of driving so, given that rate, we were hoping to be in Manali by early afternoon. But we were SO wrong! The stretch from Keylong to Manali is the toughest especially negotiating the crazy Rohtang Pass. Moreover, the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating by raining heavily over the southern side of the pass towards Manali. The rains caused landslides and our bus ended up stuck every other hour waiting for the army to clear the mess. To their credit, though, they moved quickly and we were never stuck in one place for too long! However, the going was terribly slow giving us ample opportunity to enjoy the lovely, albeit scary, landscape around.
We passed the summit at Rohtang Pass without stopping as it was too cold and windy. Moreover, the bus needed to make up on lost time; they hurried us through lunch too! At an altitude of 13,000ft, Rohtang Pass connects Himachal’s Lahaul & Spiti district with Kullu. It’s also the only motor-able way to get to Ladakh from Himachal and therefore, is quite popular, especially with bikers who love the challenge! However, it’s most famous with domestic tourists for its winter slopes when they come here in hordes to ski! Sadly it’s also famous, or rather infamous, for the treacherous, summer roads that have seen many an accident. We were happy to get across unscathed in spite of the bad weather and road conditions. When we finally got to Manali, it was almost 4pm – it had taken us 8hrs to cover 130kms!
HPTDC’s bus service, though, convenient and cost-effective is really not the best way to experience the Leh-Manali journey. Its dramatic landscape and winding roads that pass thru some of the remotest regions of our country definitely deserve a much more leisured drive-through! Next time around (Lord knows when!) we would love to make a road trip out of it!