Back to School on The Road to Ladakh

This was a trip I made in 2012 in August (monsoon season in India) with my wife and 2 of our friends. This post has been a long time coming. Geography textbooks in India are pretty boring but I was one of the few people in the class who enjoyed it. For me the Ladakh trip was a way to discover practically what all this meant – mountain pass, watershed, rainfall on windward and leeward sides, glaciers, collision of crust plates and what not. So what follows is a geographical travelogue.

First the route. You can fly to Leh but it takes all the learning out of it. We took the road from Manali to Leh which passes through 4 of some of the worlds highest mountain passes. Some quick facts:

  • Distance: 490 Km
  • Average elevation said to be 4000m (for comparison the highest peak on the alps is 4810m)
  • Highest point is the last mountain pass, Tanglang La: 5328m
  • You can do this in a continuous 18-hour drive but most people on motor vehicles do it over 2 days (some 3 days). Cyclists do it over 10 days
  • We halted for the night near Keylong (and not Sarchu) and it will be clear from the below picture that this is because of the altitude. Likelihood of getting AMS at Sarchu while spending the night is very high and the only help is the army.

We normally see maps to know the route but this is a unique road. The altitude profile tells us more than what a map can. Here is the altitude profile from Himalaya Bike (check that page out): hbyb-120manali-leh20overview20profile

Each peak on this graph is a mountain-pass. Here is what a pass looks in a geography text-book and it is described as a saddle point in topology (math and geography included!)


You have a mountain range with peaks that you need to cross and you pick a point (typically lowest and most accessible point on the range and build a road through. It is hard to photograph a mountain pass in all its glory unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. The below picture shows Khardung La (highest motorable pass?) pulled from Google Earth. You should be able to see the road snaking through; first climbing from the bottom right (Leh side) and the climbing down to the Nubra valley after the saddle point where the souvenir shop is located. I promise real pictures will follow.

Khardungla Pass

One more geography funda before we move on. Usually when there are mountains they stop rain-bearing clouds. The side that faces the clouds is called the windward side and gets more rain. The other side is called the leeward side and is drier. When you are on the road you start on the windward side and progressively cross 4 mountain ranges and it gets drier and drier. This is why Ladakh is called a cold desert. This concept will also be explained over the next few pictures.

Note: The relevant text comes before the photos.

Here is how the windward side looks like (Solang valley near Manali just before the climb to Rohtang). The Solang Valley is lush green and the clouds cover the high peaks and the pass during the monsoon. The river is the Beas river which is part of the Indus watershed.


Now we start climbing towards the Rohtang pass and this is how it looks like! Really scary and not a surprise when you hear about landslides in the Himalayas every year. The road is almost flowing because of a continuous  drizzle (you are in the clouds!) and visibility is very low because the clouds have been held up by the peaks. The road is so fluid that many times you steer left to head straight! If you drop over the side it is a cool 2000m drop. It would take 20 secs to reach the bottom (ignoring air resistance) and you would be traveling at 197 m/s when you hit it.


Here is what it looks like just before the saddle point (Rohtang pass). It is still cloudy. You can see the saddle point a couple of curves away. Amazing work by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) who provide high quality roads at almost 4000m altitude. These roads need laying every year if not more often. These roads are better than the roads in Bangalore!


Now just after you cross the saddle-point the clouds have decreased and the air is clearer! You have reached the leeward side of the Rohtang. It is still a bit green here but nothing compared to Solang valley.


Looking back at the saddle point:


The other side of Rohtang is the Chenab river valley (also part of the Indus watershed). You can see the road winding down to the valley and the river snaking along as well. This is clearly less green compared to Solang.


The road splits here – the branch on the left goes to Ladakh and the right goes to the Spiti valley which is an extremely remote desert valley as well. This is a pull from Google Earth. The bottom left image is the road winding down from Rohtang and it splits at Gramphu. The main stream is the Chenab.


Tea-stop near the Chenab crossing. The dogs have to adapt as well!


Chenab river crossing:


We go along the river after the crossing. This image is just to give you a feel of how to read the altitude profile. So every peak on this profile is a mountain pass (on a mountain range where actual peaks are much higher than this) and every valley is normally a river crossing. The mountain ranges are basically perpendicular to your screen at each mountain pass.


An example of how a glacier becomes a stream that feeds a river (see the waterfall near the centre) in the first picture. This stream joins the Chenab and ultimately reaches the sea through the Indus river. A closer view in the second.



The Chenab is actually a shortening of Chandrabhaga. The stream we just crossed is the “Chandra”. We soon reach a “sangam” where Chandra and Bhaga meet and we head upstream along the Bhaga river to reach our night stop near Keylong. I only have a bad picture of this when we cross the Bhaga stream on a bridge. At the deadend, the merged river turns right and the Chandra steam comes from the left of the deadend. Also note the sedimentary layers on the mountain (centre-right) tilted about 30 degrees from the horizontal. We shall come back to this at the end.


Mountain ponies are the default local transport for remote settlements and villages.


The Bhaga stream and the view near our tent for the night at Jispa.


We start soon after towards the 5000nder mountain passes with the first one being Baralacha La. Keep an eye on progressive changes in the landscape.

This is near an area is called Zing Zing Bar!


We still see some clouds and snow on mountain tops but overall much drier than near Rohtang (even leeward side of Rohtang)


This is the Baralacha La. It is a more plain rather than an abrupt saddle point.


Near Killingsarai


The other option for the night halt at Sarchu.


Views after Baralacha La. The canyon at the lower end is above the Tsarap river which becomes the Zanskar river and joins the Indus. We rafted on this river after reaching Ladakh near the confluence with Indus. This river passes through the extremely remote Zanskar region.


We reach Lachulung La. Too tired to really walk out and take any pictures. The altitude had me in bad shape!


It truly feels like a desert now. This is beyond Lachulung La just before we enter the More Plains which is a high altitude (4800m plateau). It is about 40km long and 2-3km wide. You could land a plane easily here. Not sure if oxygen levels would be a problem though. Trade routes crisscross this and you can see mules carrying loads (next 3 photos). This is an area where 15-day trek routes pass through as well if you are interested.


We climb again to the last and the highest mountain pass before the Ladakh valley – Tanglang La.


Ladakh valley as we climb down! We miss the beauty of the high road but start loving the oxygen!




We go along a small stream that meets the Indus. Ladakh is basically a valley of the Indus river.


The Ladakh  (Indus) Valley. The band of green follows the river.IMG_7760

Another specimen!


The road to Leh comes to a close. But we did trips to Pangong and Khardung La along with the rafting I talked about.

Confluence of the Zanskar (from top Left meeting the Indus from bottom left.


We rafted on this! One person from our group fell in and was rescued. We were told it would take 24 hours for us to reach Pakistan if we weren’t rescued. Survival is difficult because this is a glacier-fed river and the temperature would be in the single digits. We had to wear full body suits. Plus the rocks and the risk of drowning make it impossible. Another raft completely overturned and we were doing rescues for 30% of the route! The surface freezes in winter and in olden days there was no road. So the people in Zanskar trekked on the ice to get supplies. The trek is now a dangerous tourist attraction!


Another view of the Zanskar and Indus confluence where we finished our rafting trip.


Climbing up the Chang La pass to go to Pangong. This is the Indus valley.


This is after Chang La and is the Shyok valley. This river meets the Nubra river that comes from the Siachen glacier.




Yak transport!


Climb to Khardung La which is on the Ladakh range. What you see below is the Ladakh (Indus) valley. The mountain range you see beyond the valley (set of peaks from middle to the left) is the Zanskar range.


Man vs. mountain!


This is a view of the Nubra valley north of Khardung La and the peaks in the distance are the Karakoram range. The Nubra is fed by the Siachen glacier on the Karakoram range. The Karakoram range is glaciated in about 28-50% of its area. This is unheard of outside the polar regions. The other parts of the high Himalayas are only around 10-15% glaciated. Siachen is truly scary. The temperature is like the north or south poles but even worse are the oxygen levels which are really really low. We met a soldier at Pangong who told us about it.

There are trade routes to the right and to the left of the peaks that you see that connect to Yarkand and onward to China.


The same view from Google Earth! You can see the road winding down into the Nubra valley and all the peaks we see in the photo. This is why its awesome. This allows you to identify peaks and places very easily from photographs.


All the rivers we crossed are part of the Indus watershed and reach the Arabian sea near Sindh. A watershed is basically a topological shape that ensures that ultimately all streams in this area become a single stream and join the sea. Sometimes the stream(s) divide again before reaching the sea in a delta region like the Sunderbans. You can think of it like a deformed wash basin where all the water poured in has only one exit. The Ganga watershed is adjacent to the Indus Watershed. Earthquakes (or even erosion) can deform or modify a watershed. It is speculated that earthquakes are the reason for the Yamuna to take a turn and join the Ganga watershed. Apparently, earlier it used to feed into the Rajasthan area via the Ghaggar river. The Thar desert was likely created by the shifting of these rivers away.

A quick note on how the Himalayas were formed. This is what happened (Source).


So at some point there was a narrow sea between the Indian and Eurasian plate that became narrower and narrower till the Himalayas were created. This sea was called the Tethys. Fossils of sea animals have been found in the Himalayas.

Checkout this picture: You can see the sedimentary layers which were once horizontal are now completely vertical on the left side and about 45 degrees on the right of this picture. Imagine the kind of forces needed to throw this much rock and make it land this way! It is a geological process that took many million years. These layers contain the fossil evidence that I mentioned.


The Himalayas are still being formed. They are geologically young. This picture shows how rugged it is. Every winter, snow and ice will create avalanches that keep reshaping this land while the movement of the Indian plate northwards keeps making the Himalayas higher. You can also refer to the “Man vs. Mountain” picture from earlier.


Finally a map because a travelogue isn’t complete without one 🙂


A salute to the BSF, Army and BRO for helping us cope with this difficult landscape!

Here are some BRO road signs that help you retain morale through the high altitude terrain:

  • If you drink whisky, your drive will be risky
  • Better to be Mister Late rather than Late Mister
  • Be gentle on my curves
  • Life is short, don’t make it shorter

and so on