Leh Ladakh with Manali: Trip Planning

We had this Leh Ladakh trip on our bucket list for a long time and we definitely wanted to drive through the Leh-Manali Highway as it looked spectacular in pictures. It’s probably one of the most beautiful drives in India.  We could manage a week’s holiday in August as there were two public holidays in that week, Kapil took three days leave from work and we were all set for a Leh Ladakh trip.

Panoramic View of Leh Ladakh

How did we convince Dad for a Leh Ladakh trip?

Dad, who is afraid of everything, didn’t want to go as he was apprehensive about AMS (Acute Motion Sickness) in Leh Ladakh. Leh is at a height of 3500 meters where anyone can suffer from AMS due to a lack of oxygen. He is phobic of many things, which is really just a mental block.

So, the history behind this is that we planned a trip to Machu Picchu in 2016. Now, he didn’t know that Machu Picchu is at an altitude high enough to cause AMS (but he knew Leh Ladakh was). So, we decided that he didn’t need to know. We spent about 10 days at a high altitude in Peru somehow managing to hide the possible AMS issues from him. Every time we hired a local guide, Kapil would first whisper to the guide to never mention AMS. We even got him to take altitude sickness medicine by telling him that it was a mild pain-killer for an injured toe that he had at the time.

Throughout the 10 days, being unaware of the possible AMS issues, he didn’t face even the slightest of problems. Eventually, we broke the news to him while waiting on the tarmac to take off from Peru.  And, of course, we added that next year we are going to Leh Ladakh, no further excuses or questions!

Itinerary Planning

I tried various permutations and combinations of itineraries to work out whether it would be better to do Leh to Manali or Manali to Leh. Finally, I chose Leh to Manali because on the return leg, there was only one flight in the morning from Leh to Mumbai which would result in wastage of a sightseeing day.

Our Planned Itinerary:

Day 1 – Fly from Mumbai to Leh and do a mandatory rest of 24 hours for acclimatization
Day 2 – Drive to Nubra Valley – 5 hours and chill
Day 3 – See Nubra Valley and drive back to Leh –  5 hours
Day 4 – Day trip to Pangong Tso – 10 hours return-trip
Day 5 – Leh local sightseeing
Day 6 – Leh to Manali with an overnight stop in Keylong/Jispa – 12 hours
Day 7 – Keylong/Jispa to Manali – 5 hours
Day 8 – Manali local sightseeing
Day 9 – Drive from Manali to Delhi and take a night flight to Mumbai

Given our time constraints, it felt like a balanced itinerary with a few long drives. The biggest risk was going to Nubra Valley on the second day as we had to drive through the highest pass in Leh which is at a height of 18,000 feet. We took this risk because the hotel I wanted to stay at was not available on other days, we had previously been on high altitudes in Peru without any major issues and people commonly drive from Manali to Leh which also involves driving through 17,000 feet.

While everyone including our hotel staff advised us against going to Nubra valley on the second day, I still took the risk. I can’t understand if you can do the Leh-Manali Highway on the 2nd day which involves staying at a high altitude for almost 8 hours, why can’t you do Nubra Valley on the 2nd day which involves staying at a high altitude for just 3 hours?
However, my plan did not work as Kapil got stuck with AMS on the very first day.

So we had to sort a plan B.

Actual Itinerary

Day 1 – Fly from Mumbai to Leh and do a mandatory rest for 24 hours for acclimatization
Day 2 – Leh local sightseeing
Day 3 – Day trip to Pangong Tso – 10 hours return-trip
Day 4 – Drive to Nubra Valley – 5 hours
Day 5 – See Nubra Valley and drive back to Leh – 5 hours
Day 6 – Leh to Manali with an overnight stop in Keylong/Jispa – 12 hours
Day 7 – Keylong/Jispa to Manali – 5 hours
Day 8 – Manali local sightseeing
Day 9 – Fly from Kullu to Delhi and take a night flight to Mumbai – Last minute we decided to fly instead of a drive due to a landslide

If you have one more day, you can also add Tso Moriri on Day 6 and from there drive to Keylong/Jispa. It’s at a height of 14,836 feet, so make sure it is at the end of your trip. If you have a couple of more days, start in Srinagar followed by the Srinagar – Leh Highway with an overnight stop in Kargil. This route gives you a chance to explore both the highways and is better for acclimatization as well. 

Map

Here is the map of the route we followed on our road trip in Leh Ladakh.

Map of Leh Ladakh

Map of our Road Trip

Flights

One way flight to Leh along with the car and driver is the most expensive part of the trip.

I found a flight from Leh to Delhi (one way) available for 5000 Jet Airways miles per person whereas the ticket price in cash was almost Rs. 15,000 for our dates. It was a steal, as good as free! So initially I’d finalized to do Manali to Leh and fly back from Leh. I delayed the flight booking for five days and sadly the award ticket was no longer available.
Hence, I was left with no choice, bite the bullet and pay the hefty price for the flight. But then we chose to fly directly to Leh and drive back from Leh to Manali which was a blessing in disguise considering the altitude problems.

So our flights were:
Mumbai to Leh direct on Go Air – The only airline that had a direct flight
Kullu to Delhi on Air India – We booked this flight a day before as there was a landslide on the way to Delhi. Our hotel staff said it would take 18 hours to reach Delhi by road. For the price we paid for this flight, we could do a return trip to Singapore but we didn’t want to take the risk of driving back to Delhi.
Delhi to Mumbai on Spice Jet

View from the flight

Though we paid a hefty price for this flight, this view made it all worth it!

Weather

Best time to visit Leh Ladakh is from June to September when Leh-Manali Highway and Srinagar-Leh Highway are open. Early June is a bit risky, as sometimes opening of the Leh-Manali Highway can get delayed until mid-June. The Srinagar-Leh Highway opens a bit early, around mid-May. Also, May-June is a peak season due to Indian school holidays, so it’s best to avoid this time. However, there is more snow early in the season i.e. in June as compared to later in the season i.e. in August. The Winter from November to February is pretty much covered in snow with the chance to spot a Snow Leopard.

We visited Leh Ladakh in August and were expecting cold weather. We packed heavy woollens but it turned out to be hot in the afternoon and pleasant most of the times. A light jacket was sufficient for high altitudes. Also, being Independence day weekend we were expecting a large crowd and a kilometre long line at Rohtang pass. To our surprise, it felt deserted with absolutely no waiting time at Rohtang pass.
 
Traffic Jam in Leh Ladakh

The only traffic jam we faced in Leh Ladakh 🙂

Inner Line Permit

Starting in 2017, Indians now require inner line permit to visit Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Tso Morii etc. It is not required for Leh city and the Leh- Manali Highway. It cost around Rs. 500 per person and there are 2 ways to obtain it:
1) Getting it done by your hotel. We did this and paid an additional Rs. 500 per person as a service fee, so the total was Rs. 4000 for four of us. We just had to give the hotel a copy of our ids along with the list of places we wanted to visit and the dates of our travel.
2) If you’ve time and want to save Rs. 500 per person, then fill the form here, take a print out, go to the office in Leh city and pay the fees.

Acute Motion Sickness (AMS)

AMS can affect anyone irrespective of fitness or age. Best way to tackle AMS is to gain height gradually during the day and sleep at a lower altitude.

During Leh Ladakh trip heights of various places are:

Srinagar – 5200 ft (1585 m)
Highest pass between Srinagar and Kargil – 11575 ft (3528 m)
Kargil – 8780 ft (2676 m)
Highest pass between Kargil and Leh –  13478 ft (4108 m)
Leh – 11,480 ft (3500 m)
Highest pass between Leh and Nubra Valley – 18380 ft (5600 m) – Highest Pass in Leh
Nubra Valley – 10,000 ft (3048 m)
Highest pass between Leh and Pangong Tso – 17688 (5391 m) – Second Highest Pass in Leh
Pangong Tso – 14270 ft (4350 m)
Tso Moriri – 14836 ft (4522 m)
Highest pass between Leh and Keylong/Jispa – 17582 ft (5358 m)
Jispa – 10,500 ft (3200 m)
Keylong – 10,100 ft (3080 m)
Highest pass between Keylong/Jispa and Manali – 13051 feet (3978 m)
Manali – 6726 ft (2050 m)

So it’s best to either start from Srinagar and drive to Leh or fly directly to Leh, rest for 24 hours and take it easy for 48 hours. I would not recommend going from Manali to Leh as most of it is above 15,000 feet, driving through which takes around 7 to 8 hours. Even after five days, we were slightly uncomfortable on the highway. Though Nubra Valley is lower than Leh, the drive is through the highest pass in Leh which takes around 3 hours. So everyone in Leh including hotel staff, the driver and the doctor said that it’s suicidal to attempt Nubra Valley on the second day. If planning to stay in Pangong Tso or Tso Moriri it should be towards the end of the trip.

Precautions to take to tackle AMS:

  • Take medicine after advice from your doctor before coming to Leh and during the first two days in Leh.
  • Should rest for 24 – 48 hours on the day of arrival if flying directly to Leh.
  • After landing, wear a jacket to keep the body warm.
  • Keep drinking water but do not over-drink.
  • Kahwa tea can help to relieve symptoms like headaches. It gave us some instant relief when having difficulties.
  • At our hotel, camphor (Kapoor) was available in small packets, smell them when you feel uneasy.
  • Avoid fried or heavy food and alcohol on the first day. Instead, eat their local dish Thukpa and foods which are rich in carbohydrates.
  • Avoid sleeping during the day. Kapil didn’t follow this and got stuck with AMS. Even though the rest of us slept during the day we didn’t face any problems.

These are recommendations I heard about and no one can predict how your body will react at a high altitude. If you face any problems, call the doctor immediately. When Kapil caught a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit, had a severe headache and felt breathlessness, our hotel staff immediately called for a doctor. He was a very friendly man, gave Kapil oxygen and an injection, in no time Kapil felt better. For his visit, the doctor charged us Rs. 1000.

Stuck with AMS

Kapil stuck with AMS 🙁

Booking a Driver for Leh Ladakh trip

I’m always sceptical in selecting drivers in India as I’ve faced several problems in the past – they want to push you for shopping at places where they get commission, take you to their own places to eat, make excuses if they don’t want to go to a particular place, at times lie for their own benefit and to top it all, the A/C will be switch off in the hills.

I found a list of drivers from Leh on this site and sent a WhatsApp message to some of them. I also contacted some drivers from Manali who were cheaper but blatantly refused to keep the A/C on in the hills stating that it damages the engine of the car. It feels that they just have made this a trend to save money. Even for Manali local sightseeing, drivers keep the A/C off as it is a hilly region. If Leh drivers can drive from Leh to Manali with the A/C on why can’t Manali drivers keep the A/C switched on in Manali which is nothing as compared to the hilly drive on Leh-Manali Highway?

Out of all the drivers from Leh whom I had contacted, Rigzen was the first one to reply and agreed to provide everything I wanted – 7+1 seater A/C Innova, new 2016 model, fitted with oxygen for an emergency, my itinerary and offered a 10% discount on the fixed taxi union rates. Hence, I booked him for our trip and he didn’t even ask for an advance, trusting our word.

Name and Contact number – Rigzen Namgail at 9622950842

Review:

Rigzen was truly a gem. He didn’t even ask if we wanted to shop, took us where ever we wanted to go, stopped along the way when and where we liked and believe it not, didn’t even switch the A/C off once. Imagine being on the Leh – Manali Highway for 12 hours without the A/C and breathing all the dust.

Rigzen was a very skilled driver. He had total control of the car and even managed to find a western toilet for my mom when she was in dire need. He himself would offer to help us with everything like carrying the paddle when we went river rafting or buying water and medicines for us. My dad would always panic due to AMS and bad roads. He would ask him the same questions again and again but Rigzen answered them patiently without getting irritated. He was open to whatever time we wanted to leave and never ever felt tired.

On our way back from Leh to Keylong, since mom was feeling uneasy, we didn’t stop anywhere to eat. We just had tea at Sarchu and Rigzen managed to eat his lunch in five minutes before mom finished her tea. He was fine with driving continuously for 12 hours without eating anything. He was like if you won’t eat how can I?

Rigzen was very adjusting and accommodated us perfectly. He made this Leh Ladakh trip memorable for us. I would highly recommend booking him directly rather than booking a driver in any other way.

Tip – Book drivers from Leh and if you want to have a comfortable trip, make sure to book an A/C car confirming with the driver that he will keep the A/C on throughout the trip.

Car and Driver - Leh Ladakh

Rigzen and his almost brand new Innova

Planning a trip to Leh Ladakh?

Check out all the other posts in Leh Ladakh with Manali series:
Our Detailed Itinerary and Trip Report
Choosing Accommodations in Leh, Nubra Valley, Keylong and Manali
Vegetarian Food in Ladakh and Manali

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored or free trip – We have paid for all our Holiday expenses but I spend a lot of time researching for the best deals and at times do get a discount as I run a travel business as well.

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