The Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India – one of the highest and most dangerous mountain roads in the world

Leh (Ladakh) – Srinagar (Kashmir) is one of the two main highways in Ladakh. I have travelled on this road back in 2011 during my solo trip and later in 2017, leading a small group. It passes through Lamaruyu, where the famous Monastery and a few others are located. Visiting the monasteries in the region while experiencing what it’s like to travel on one of the world’s highest mountain roads is an excellent reason to plan a trip to this area. In the text below, I am writing about my first solo trip to Ladakh.

Dramatic Himalayan Landscape alongside Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

As we, my driver Ali and I were leaving Leh, the impressive mountains and dizzying landscapes began to take over my senses. It was cold, the air was thin, and I was breathing heavily. The light at this height was bright and shining, and the feeling of euphoria grew at every kilometre. The bright blue sky was in stark contrast to the mountains’ snow-capped peaks, which looked like they were made of fragile crystal. I had the feeling they would break into thousands of pieces if I touched them. Gradually I got used to the altitude, which allowed me to fully enjoy the nature around me. 

Dramatic Himalayan Landscape alongside Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

The distance between Srinagar to Leh via Kargil is approximately 434 kilometres. There are three high altitude passes on the route, and at several stretches, the road runs right next to the Indo-Pakistan border. Because of that, Kargil and the surrounding area are sensitive, with several military checkpoints.

Geographical Note: Ladakh is the highest plateau in India, over 3,000 meters above sea level. It stretches from the Himalayas in the south to the Kunlun mountain range in the north. Ladakh is defined as a high-altitude desert (“cold desert”), as it hardly gets any rain. The Himalayas interfere with the monsoons on their way north, making the whole area very dry. The primary source of water is the winter snowfall in the mountains and the melting glaciers. 

The alien-looking landscapes, the bright blue sky during the day and the clear, cold nights strewn with endless stars describe well Ladakh, I believe. Photographers love this place. 

Dramatic Himalayas landscape alongside Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

The Srinagar – Leh Highway is usually operational for about 5 months (mid-May to mid- November), but the opening and closure dates could vary.

The road runs alongside the Indus River, which springs near Kailash Mountain in Tibet (nowaday China), flows south through Ladakh (India) and across Pakistan, passing five of its six provinces. I managed to travel alongside the river’s entire length during different trips except for its upper course, located in China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region. 

The waters of the Indus River changes their colours every season. The Zanskar River follows more or less the same pattern, and the place where they merge in the Nimmu Valley is awe-inspiring. The sharp contrast in the waters can be observed best from one point on the road, where people frequently stop to take photos. You can’t miss it, for there are cars parked there all the time. This place is also the highest in the world where you can do rafting. There are a few companies in the villages that offer this service. 

The mighty Indus River flowing through the Indus Valley in Ladakh, India

In winter, when the rivers freeze, the place becomes part of the famous adventure Chadar Trek (about 106 km long). You can hike an average of 16 km a day on the river’s frozen waters and through the Zanskar gorge. A team of the National Geographical Society made a documentary about this place, after which the number of people wanting to hike it jumped sharply. I also wanted to do it, but well…someday. You can join a group from Leh here.

After the village of Kaltse, it begins one of the most exciting sections of the road, passing through Fotu La (4,108 m) and Zoji La (3,528 m). The road here makes about 18 curves called Hanger Loops, which from above resemble a snake. This is probably the most dramatic and spectacular part of the road, making it so famous. 

Dramatic Himalayan Landscape and the 18 curves called Hanger Loops on Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

This road wouldn’t be the same without the colourful trucks painted like a circus entourage. The roar of boosting engines echoed throughout the valleys. Trucks slowly climb up, then move a little bit back so they can make the turn. They often stop for longer when they crash, of course, at the road’s narrowest point. Then gradually, a long queue of all kinds of vehicles is formed. The drivers go out and start talking or drinking tea; no one screams, no one is nervous or at least not visibly. Obviously, such situations occur often. Another reason for the road blockages is the constant reconstructions and maintenance work.

Colourful trucks painted like a circus entourage agains the dramatic Himalayan Landscape alongside Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

The road was built following an old Central Asian route, starting from Srinagar through Leh and reaching Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. The hard-to-reach mountains were first dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nowadays, workers hired for its maintenance also work manually in most cases. I saw them on the road or next to their tents. The workers come from Jharkhandi, India, especially from a few villages. One of them gave the name they are often referred to – dumki (from Dumka). Neighboring Nepal is also a source of cheap labour, as well as the locals. 

Road workesr work on the Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

Suddenly we heard a noise like thunder, followed by a loud roar. A torrent of stones poured into the ravine in front of the truck before us. In about an hour and a half of hard manual work, the road workers cleared the pavement, and the trucks and other vehicles drove slowly forward. There is no road safety equipment, not even a small detour. The road cannot be closed; life here depends on it.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW

You have several options for travelling on Srinagar – Leh Highway. The cheapest way would be by regular bus service from Srinagar to Leh, operational from May to early November. It is a two-day journey, with an overnight in Kargil. The government operated buses charge something like Rs 1050 per person for deluxe and Rs 650 per person for semi-deluxe for the entire distance from Srinagar to Leh. Private buses charge about Rs 1000 for the same route.

In recent years for many Indians, it became popular to travel by Motorcycle. You can join a group here.

There are shared taxis available. Probably this is the most inconvenient way to travel this road because it is a non-stop 16-18 hours of the journey, far too long in my opinion. That would be feasible only if you need to arrive in Leh or Srinagar fast. In any other case, I would not recommend it. 

Of course, you can rent a car or 4×4, but note that the road is dangerous, often busy, and the rules are not followed strictly. It is for experienced drivers, in my opinion.  

I organise and lead small groups for Ladakh. If you’re interested in joining a group from Europe, please drop me a line. I will provide more information, such as dates, programmes, and other details.

OTHER USEFUL SERVICES, WHICH MIGHT HELP YOU EXPLORE  THIS  PLACE

Accommodation

Hotels in Leh, Ladakh

Hotels in Srinagar

Airbnb properties in Ladakh, India

For budget travellers Hermit Hut in Leh, Ladak would be a good choice

Local Entertainment/Activities

You can join small groups in Leh, Ladak for a variety of activities. Please check the options offered by Viator. 

Insurance – Do not travel without travel insurance! We have an excellent experience with World Nomads, as it is the only company that covers an unlimited budget, provides coverage of a massive bunch of adventure activities and you can purchase it while on the road. Get a free quote using the form.

Colourful trucks painted like a circus entourage agains the dramatic Himalayan Landscape alongside Srinagar-Leh Highway in Ladakh, India

INTERESTING BOOKS

Free delivery worldwide (with no minimum spend) from Book Depository (Amazon), a leading international book retailer. Please click on the title of the book to read the full description and to buy it.

Trekking in Ladakh: Eight adventurous trekking routes

A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey

Ladakh: A Land of Mystical Monasteries

Ladakh, Jammu and the Kashmir Valley Bradt Guide

Ladakh: The Essential Guide: Including Kashmir & Manali

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Accommodation: AirBnb rentals / Hotels from booking.com / Hostels from HostelWorld;
Entertainment and activities from Viator and GetYourGuide;
Insurance: World Nomads;
Visa services: Visa services from iVisa / Visa services from Visa HQ;
Travel Guides from BookDepository (Amazon) with free delivery worldwide: Lonely Planet /  Bradt / National Geographic;
Car Rentals: AutoEurope; 

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