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A guide to roadtripping in the Himalayan wonderland

| Updated on: Oct 29, 2015
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Are you itching to head to the hills? Here are some tips for planning your next road trip to the Himalayas

Travelling to the hills always has its allure, especially if you live in the sweltering plains. A road trip up the hills is even more enticing and invokes the spirit of adventure in all of us. And the ultimate destination for road trippers is a drive in the Himalayas.

The states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir offer excellent road connectivity and picturesque locales like Manali, Srinagar, Leh, Ladakh, Spiti and Lahaul. Driving in the high altitude roads of these states is not for everyone and also requires a fair bit of acclimatisation to avoid altitude sickness if you are travelling from the plains. Also the weather can be notoriously unpredictable even during the summer months when it is tolerably cold.

Planned trip Adding to the mix of adventure (if you look at it that way) and element of unpredictability are the mountain passes – some of them among the highest in the world – which can be closed to traffic suddenly due to heavy snow fall. So, if you soak in and look past these disclaimers and with a bit of advance planning, a driving holiday in the Himalayas next summer will certainly be worth considering. We managed to sneak in a road trip to Leh a few weeks ago, before the mountain passes like Rohtang, Baralacha La and Tanglang La start to receive fresh snowfall and could be closed for the winter.

If you are ready for a longer road trip that will involve multiple stops spread over a three day journey, then you can choose either of the two most common routes – Manali-Leh or Srinagar-Leh. Both these highways are challenging and spectacular. But, for those that haven’t done road trips at such altitudes and don’t have an experienced driver in their midst, it would be advisable to head into Leh by air and then drive around the valley after taking rest on the first day to avoid altitude sickness.

Even if you did plan on driving the full stretch of these highways, it may be a better idea to drive out towards Srinagar or Manali from Leh, which is at a higher altitude already, instead of the other way around. Leh is well connected by air from Delhi and Srinagar. And there is now a wide choice of accommodations at Leh town.

Topography Leh district is located over a fairly wide altitude band ranging from 2,300 to 5,000 metres above sea level. It is sandwiched by Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in the west and the Chinese border in the north and east. It is about a 435km-drive from Srinagar and about 465 kms from Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The stark and beautiful Lahaul and Spiti valley is to the south east of Leh.

Leh itself is a great driving destination. Extremely well maintained roads that wind around the hills of the town are a delight to drive on. There are three parallel mountain ranges of the Himalayas that seem to encircle Leh – the Karakoram, the Zanskar and the Ladakh. The stark barren landscapes, broken only by the colourfully painted Buddhist monastries of the region are a sight to behold. Crossing quaint, old and rusty bridges that go over the Shayok, Indus and the Zanskar rivers are an experience by themselves. The people of the valley are very friendly and trying out some of the local cuisine should definitely be part of the drive experience (don’t just stop with tea flavoured with salted yak butter).

Choice of vehicle You can bring your own vehicle or rent an Innova or other van after landing in Leh. A sports utility vehicle will be ideal, due to its higher ground clearance, just in case you have to tackle bad patches or go off-road or drive past a landslide area. Of course, if you can bring a SUV with four-wheel drive that will be the best option.

We had the new Hyundai Creta with us while in Leh and though it doesn’t offer four-wheel drive, it still turned out to be quite a capable vehicle to tackle the rough terrain of the region. The Creta’s diesel engine offers a lot of low-end torque and though, on average, turbochargers suffer from low oxygen level symptoms similar to humans, it still managed to deliver at these high altitudes.

The Creta’s ground clearance of 190mm is also adequate, as is the 400-litre boot. But, this is still a fairly compact SUV and five passengers with reasonable luggage is what it can manage. For lugging more gear such as tents and climbing equipment you will need a larger vehicle.

The best time to travel to Leh-Ladakh is between June and September. There is a chance of rainfall leading to landslides in June, so August and September are the most ideal. The winter here is too harsh and the region becomes inaccessible during the other months due to heavy snowfall.

Also there are some areas in and around Leh which are blocked off by the army due to security reasons. Special permission can be obtained to drive through some of them.

Apart from altitude sickness, which is a fairly serious health hazard, there are a few other risks involved due to the terrain of the Leh-Ladakh region. But the spectacular vistas you will encounter along your journey will more than make up for it. A road trip here is still one of the best adventures in India.

Published on January 23, 2018

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