A personal account of a trip on the world's most dangerous road. With some photos from the road showing the vehicles and snow.
The Manali to Leh highway in northern India is considered one of the greatest road trips in the world according to one of the world’s most trusted travel guides, Lonely Planet. Having recently returned from this magical and equally hazardous land, I thought I’d share my experience on this dangerous highway in the beautiful Himalayas.
The road is astonishingly attractive, rugged and crazy all in equal measure. For our journey we hired a Toyota Innova and an Indian gentlemen by the name of Titu. With three friends we made our start from Old Manali at 5am. For the two-day journey with one overnight stop, we paid the equivalent of 180 pounds for our transport collectively. As there were five of us it worked out at a bargain of 36 pounds per seat.
The first five hours were spent travelling up to the Rohtang pass standing at a mighty 4500m in the Himalayas. The drive was very memorable for somewhat surprising reasons – not just because of the scenery! In the summer time Manali and the Rohtang pass become a playground for domestic Indian tourists donning seemingly obligatory 80s snowsuits. The sheer number of people looking for a quick glimpse of snow leads to a five hour traffic jam in the 30km ride to the snowline. Having left at 5am we made our way past the central attraction of snow and past the hordes of tourists at 10am. I couldn’t quite believe what my eyes had just witnessed: tons of Indians waiting five hours in smelly snowsuits at the crack of dawn for a glimpse of some brown snow!
After we traversed through the slushy roads and above the tree line we got some of the most beautiful and breathtaking views I have ever seen. After a one hour descent to 3000m we made our way through the valley traversing a raging river full of melt water and past green little villages which are the only shoots of greenery in the otherwise semi-arid conditions.
The road was in appalling condition. Despite hundreds of workers bravely fighting the elements to keep the road open in the most dangerous and challenging conditions, the highway is more like a flooded dirt track at this altitude. On our second day of traveling from Keylong to Leh, we were delayed by more than 6 hours. Notable delays include: a landslide (two hours), an avalanche (three hours), a broken bridge (one hour) and a section of the road that had essentially turned into a one-metre deep river. Here, a car the same model and type as ours got completely stuck while people tried to pull it through the river. This last delay at 5pm led to many people to announce that we were most likely going to be stuck for the night! However, after much effort and an enormous amount of arguing, the vehicle was pulled begrudgingly through the mini waterfall and onto the dirt track the other side. We were worried and nervous about getting stuck, but our driver Titu took it with amazing ease much to our collective delight. What was most amazing about the road and the delays was that only one driver owned a shovel and I only saw one sledgehammer despite the likely hood of one of these events occurring on trip on this road. Despite this the road was cleared and repaired every time by brute force and the use of this most basic of tools.
After nearly 30 hours of travelling, five military check points and 500km we arrived into Leh, Ladakh, our final destination, just after midnight having left Keylong at 5 am that morning.
Verdict: This was certainly the most dangerous and hardcore drive of my life. If it wasn’t for our fantastic driver with 15 years of Himalayan driving experience I may have felt considerably more scared and unsafe. The dangers of altitude sickness, landslides, avalanches and roads that have been eroded by the copious amounts of melted snow make the Manali to Leh highway the most dangerous road that I have ever travelled. And definitely one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
Key facts of the road
· Open from late May to September
· Maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organization)
· Average elevation 4,000m
· Highest pass is the Taglang La at 5,328m – The second highest road pass in the world
· Length – 490km
· Average journey 20 hours
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[Images courtesy ElspethVelten.com]