Leaving the lush green Beas Valley from Manali, a hill town that marks the beginning of an ancient trade route to Ladakh, we climb about to Rohtang Pass at an altitude of 3978m. In just a little less than 50km we make the first arduous climb to gain an elevation of more than 2200m. Rohtang literally translates to ‘pile of corpses’. Rightly so, much of Rohtang remains covered in snow even in the heat of summer.
The route immediately on the other side of Rohtang can seldom be called a road. This weird mix of muck, mush and slush might remind some of melted chocolate, but this stretch can be frustratingly uncomfortable for most. The region on the other side of Rohtang is in rain-shadow. It seldom rains in this part even in the monsoon months of July and August. As we descend from Rohtang, entering into Lahaul valley, we pass Grampu. It’s a fork in the road which leads to Kaza in the Spiti valley, but we don’t take this road. We continue west, sticking to Manali-Leh highway, which was designed, built and is maintained by the Border Roads Organisation in its entirety. As we descend for the 30-odd kilometres from Rohtang we drop to a minimum elevation of about 2400 m, having already left a small village, Khoksar, behind us. We start our climb again and go past Sissu, a small town on the banks of river Chandra. Moving further we pass the confluence of rivers, Chandra and Bhaga to form the Chenab at Tandi. Past Tandi we continue along the river Bhaga towards Keylong. Keylong, at an altitude of 3100 m, is the district headquarters and the biggest town between Manali and Leh.
The next section leads 20km further with an elevation gain of 450m, bringing us to Jispa, a small village in Lahaul, with the river Bhaga still on our side. Leaving Jispa and passing over the Bhaga at Darcha we climb for 30km to Zingzing Bar and gaining an elevation of 1370m. Zingzing Bar at 4300m is little more than a road building camp and a tea shop.
We keep climbing steadily from Zingzing bar for 16km until we come to Baralacha La having climbed about 580m. The river Bhaga originates from Suraj Tal formed by the snow melting off a side of Baralacha La, a high mountain pass at 4900m. As we leave Baralacha La we soon cross Bharatpur and further head towards Sarchu, a checkpost and military camp at 4300m, and keep descending till Brandy Nallah, the base of Ghata loops. Even after having descended for 53km till Brandy Nallah we come down only to an elevation of 4150m, that’s still very high!
From Brandy Nallah we start climbing Ghata Loops, a series of 21 hairpin bends that steadily rise towards Nakee La at 4750m, having gained an elevation of 700m in 20km. The road is relatively flat for the next 7km, but we soon start climbing yet again for the next 7km, gaining an elevation of 300m to reach Lachulung La at an elevation of 5050m. The climb from Gata Loops through Nakee La and finally to Lachulung La is probably the most torturous one of the whole route. After coming to Nakee La the runner might try to seek respite and hope for a descend, but going gets tougher when one has to climb another 7km to reach Lachulung La. We descend for the next 20km to reach Pang, world’s highest transit camp. You get to witness some really weird but amazing soil formations here.
As we leave Pang we again climb about 300m through a few hairpin bends to enter the Morey Plains! Morey plains are astonishingly flat with hills flanking it from either side. Spanning for about 40km with an average elevation of 4700m and running along the river Sumkhel Lungpa in some parts, the road through Morey plains are one of the most striking geographical features one will encounter on this road. Here one might chance upon some people who are still leading a tough nomadic life in this cold desert.
As we move further, we do our last big climb, this is also a climb to the highest point on the route. Gaining an elevation of 535m in 14km, we reach the highest pass on the whole route, Tanglang La. Being the highest point in our journey the air here is the rarest in oxygen, so this climb could well be as difficult as our climb to Lachulung La, or more, who knows! Run and find out! From TanglangLa it’s all downhill! Well, almost. As we descend for 20km, we come across the first settlement in the Leh valley, Rumtse. We continue descending for another 30km before arriving at Upshi. This is where we hear the roaring, rumbling of the mighty river Indus for the first time.
Crossing a bridge over the life-giving waters of this great river Indus is unquestionably uplifting for one’s spirits. We still need to cover the last segment of 60km on rolling terrain till we reach the Shanti Stupa at the heart of the beautiful town Leh. The long and arduous journey of 480km on foot finally ends here.