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Srinagar - Leh Highway Nh-1d : The Great Indian Road-trip

Discussion in 'Destination Guides' started by Debapriya Deb, Jul 25, 2015.

  1. Debapriya Deb

    Debapriya Deb Active Member

    "Our land is so barren, and the passes are so high that only the best friends or the fiercest enemies come to visit us" - an old folklore that aptly describes the beauty and challenge of the Leh-Ladakh region.

    The lifeline that connects this paradise with mainland India is the Srinagar-Leh national highway - NH 1D - a road that inspires the adventurous souls, bewilders the explorer minds and terrorizes the hell out of the most daredevils at the same time. Leh is not another tourist destination that you can pack your bags and just drive off. It's kind of 'once in a lifetime' trip which would test the epitome of your physical as well as mental strength. The attraction of Leh trip is tempting - more of a 'dream come true' experience if done right - with the prospect of turning out to be your worst nightmare - if things go wrong. Remember, you have been warned!

    Proper planning is of great importance for a memorable, and most importantly, safe Srinagar-Leh trip. You must devote enough time to research thoroughly before embarking on the journey. This write-up is intended to cover every minute detail that can help travellers to turn the tour from 'Just another Ladakh Trip' to something extraordinary.

    Acute Mountain Sickness:

    Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), also known as Altitude Sickness, is a pathological effect of high altitude on human bodies, caused by acute exposure to low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes. It can can affect mountain climbers, hikers, skiers, or travellers at high altitudes beyond 2400 meters above the sea level.

    Usually, travellers suffer from acute mountain sickness at Leh as is situated at a high altitude of over 3500 meters from the sea level. However, the Leh-Srinagar highway passes through gradual ascends, so the chances of experiencing heavy mountain sickness is pretty low, although it can't be ruled out completely. So to acclimatize with the changing environment, it's recommended to gradually cover the Srinagar-Leh trip in a span of 2-3 days, instead of a non-stop travel. A night halt at Kargil and Lamayuru would not only take care of probable AMS symptoms, but also provide you the opportunity to explore the nearby places of interest.

    Inner Line Permit:

    Inner Line Permit or ILP is a grant issued by the Government of India to Indian citizens which allows us to visit sensitive areas close to the national border for a duration of 21 days. Till a couple of years ago, a trip to Leh-Ladakh without ILP was not possible.

    Thankfully, with effect from 1st of May, 2014, the MHA did away with the need of ILP for visiting Leh and the regular tourist circuits. Indian citizens now do not require permits on Leh–Manali Highway, Srinagar-Leh highways and local attractions near Leh town.

    For Indian Citizens:

    For Indian Nationals, photo ID proofs act as the permit to visit the regular tourist circuits in Leh. All you need to do is to present your valid Nationality Proof at the ITBP/Army check-posts. Driving License, Aadhar Card, Indian Passport, PAN Card, etc are accepted as identity proof.
    So you are now free to visit the following circuits without any Inner Line Permit.

    1. Nubra, Panamik till Turtuk,
    2. Pangong Tso till Merak villege along the lake,
    3. Nyoma till Loma checkpost,
    4. Tso Kar to Tso Moriri lake circuit,
    5. Yaye Tso till Mirpal Tso.

    However, to get access to interior places such as Hanle, Tsaga, Chusul, beyond Loma bend, Marsimik La, Chumur and Batalik sectors, you still need to obtain ILP. You need to fill up an application form and attach a copy of your ID proof to get your permits approved. You can download the Inner Line Permit application from internet and submit the application at the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Leh town.

    For Foreign Nationals:

    All foreign nationals need to apply for Protect Area Permits (PAP) in a group of two or more through a registered travel agent in Leh. Passport and Visa copies are needed to be submitted for obtaining the permit.

    Things to Note Down:

    1. You are required to mention all the places in ILP form that you are planning to cover on your Leh-Ladakh trip.

    2. The official DC office timings are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on all working days but forms are not accepted after 3:00 PM.

    3. Make sure to carry a few photocopies of the approved permit, application form, and ID proof. You will need to submit a copy at every check post that you’ll come across during your tour.

    4. The permit to Indian citizens is valid for 3 weeks from the date of issuance.

    5. Protect Area Permit (PAP) is valid for a period of 1 week.

    6. Permits for travelling to a few remote places (for example Changthang region) are not extended to foreigners. These are restricted to the Indian tourists only.

    Srinagar-Leh Travel Options:

    Bus - The Cheapest Mode of Transport

    Srinagar-Leh highway is well-connected by JKSRTC operated buses. Bus journey originates from Srinagar Bus Stand at Lal Chowk and concludes at Polo Ground Bus Stop at Leh town. The fleet consists of standard and deluxe buses. The fare is around INR 650 for Standard buses, while deluxe buses, which are mainly semi-sleeper in nature with push-back reclining seats, would cost another 200 bucks. Moreover, a few private luxury buses are also available during the peak season and the fare would be INR 900 to INR 1200. Buses usually depart from Srinagar bus stop in the early hours of day and reaches Leh on the following day after a night halt at Kargil. Bus is by far the cheapest mode of transportation to Leh.

    Private Taxi/Cab:

    You can also avail taxi services from Srinagar to Leh. However, the taxi that would drop you to Leh, is not allowed to be used for local sightseeing - unless it has a Ladakh registration number. Ladakh Taxi Union has a rule that makes it mandatory to use only the vehicles with Ladakh registration numbers for the purpose of tourism. So you would need to use one taxi for dropping and another local one for local destinations in Leh-Ladakh region.

    If you are planning to hire a single taxi at Srinagar for the entire Leh-Ladakh tour, then ensure that it's registered at Ladakh. There's high probability that you will be able to get a Ladakh taxi near Srinagar Lal Chowk area, which would have dropped someone else to Srinagar and looking for passengers for the return trip to Leh.

    In-case, you are unable to find a Ladakh registered taxi in Srinagar, then you can look for a drop to Kargil and subsequently hire another taxi with Ladakh registration number for the Kargil-Leh trip plus local sightseeing. It will also provide you an opportunity to cover the tourist attractions en-route Kargil-Leh highway.

    From the pricing point of view, there's no fixed taxi charges for Srinagar-Leh drop. The one-way fair may range from INR 9000 to INR 14000 depending on your bargaining power. If you would like to have a stop-over at night, an additional INR 1000 will be charged by the driver.

    Shared Taxi:

    Shared taxi is an economical mode of travel which is mostly preferred by single traveller and couples. It can be the best option if you are on a tight budget and not travelling in a group. Most of the shared taxis depart from Srinagar at midnight and reach Leh town in the following evening. The travel time is around 16 hours without any night halt. Booking a seat in shared taxi would cost you around INR 1400. This is the second cheapest mode of transport after the bus service.

    Own Vehicle (Car/Bike):

    For most of the travel enthusiasts, it's a passion to drive on the challenging Srinagar-Leh highway for the adrenaline rush that it offers. Regarded as one of the most adventurous road-trips in India, the sheer joy of driving (and riding) on this unchartered territory is a hard to resist temptation. It is extremely important to be an expert driver before you think of driving on the Srinagar-Leh rugged terrain. The risk of breakdown is always there but the freedom of driving on your own at a place like Ladakh is definitely worth the risk. You should also be aware of basic mechanics and maintenance of your vehicle in case of any unforeseen events.

    The Srinagar-Leh highway runs through some of the extremely difficult mountain passes at very high altitude which can take its toll on the body. However, it's not as daunting a task compared to the Manali-Leh highway - which is far more challenging. Almost the entire highway is tarred, although there are a few stretches that are repeatedly affected by monsoon, landslides and snow falls.

    You will have to tackle three mountain passes named Zoji La (3528 Mtrs), Namki La (3815 Mtrs) and Fotu La (4108 Mtrs) - which are the tricky stretches that you will have to encounter en-route. Zoji La Pass is the most challenging of the three - especailly during the post monsoon days when landslides create havoc in the nearby areas.

    4WD SUV can be the ideal vehicle to cover Srinagar-Leh highway, but it's not mandatory. A standard SUV/MUV can undertake the journey with relative ease. Even Sedans and Hatchbacks should not pose much of an issue if you are an experienced driver, although be prepared to take a few bumps and blows due to the low ground clearence at some places.
    Same is the case with bikes as well. A Bullet or a ThunderBird can be your best bet, but that does not mean that you can't do this trip riding on a Bajaj Pulsar or Yamaha RX-100.

    Self-Drive Car & Bike Rentals:

    If you are not keen to put your own vehicle through the possible ill-treatment, but at the same time don't wish to miss the experience of driving on the Srinagar-Leh highway, then you can avail vehicle rental services from Srinagar. Although from the budget perspective, it is going to be little costly compared to own car/bike, nevertheless you will at-least spare your loved possession from all the sufferings.

    Bike rentals at Srinagar would cost you in the range of INR 800 to INR 1,600 per day depending upon the make and model, vehicle condition and your art of negotiation. Moreover you would need to pay a refundable security deposit of INR 10,000 to INR 15,000 and also provide an original identity proof. Make sure to test ride the motorbike to assess its condition before making any advance payments.

    While most of the popular Self-Drive Services including Zoom, Rent-A-Car, CarzOnRent and Avis are based out of the metro cities and you can avail their services to Leh from Delhi/NCR region, Self-drive cars can also be arranged from Srinagar. Typically, a 4WD SUV will cost you around INR 3500 per day, while for a Compact SUV you need to shell out around INR 3000 on a day by day basis. MUVs like Innova are available for INR 2500 to INR 3000, while you can rent small hatchbacks for around INR 1500 to INR 2000 per day. The refundable security deposit for renting self-driven car is around INR 60,000.

    Reliable Bike Rentals at Srinagar:

    1. Kashmir Bikers
    Contact No - (+91) 9796-188199, (+91) 9596-202285
    Website - kashmirbikers.com

    2. The Lion Travels
    Contact No - (+91)-194-247-6466, (+91)-9906432384
    Website - theliontravels.com/bikerent.aspx

    Self-Drive Car Rental Services at Srinagar:

    1. Make My Journey
    Contact +(91)-9622583810 , +(91)-9796566427.
    Website - makemyjourney.co.in

    2. Bright Horizon Tours & Travels
    Contact +(91)-9419006827 , +(91)-9596088844
    Website - brighthorizontours.com

    3. The Lion Travels
    Contact No - (+91)-194-247-6466, (+91)-9906432384
    Website - theliontravels.com/carrent.aspx

    Important Advisory:

    Ladakh Taxi Union has recently passed a resolution that self-driven cars can not be used for local sightseeing purpose with immediate effect. This resolution has not been approved by the administration, so it's illegal in terms of law, but the members of taxi union are trying all they could to force the rule on travelers.

    In the recent past, there have been isolated incidents of blocking and damaging rented self-drive cars and bikes in Ladakh. People traveling by self-driven cars and bikes have been threatened and even physically assaulted. Travelers were also forced to hire local vehicle for sightseeing within the Leh-Ladakh region.

    According to the Ladakh Taxi Union, you are still allowed to use self-drive cars on the Srinagar-Leh highway for arrival and departure. But for local sightseeing, you must hire a local taxi or avail the local bus services.

    Srinagar-Leh Highway Route Map and Trip Planning:

    Srinagar-Leh National Highway (NH 1D) Route: Srinagar -> Sonmarg -> Zoji La -> Drass -> Kargil -> Nimoo -> Leh. Total Distance = 430 KM.

    It's the most preferred route to Leh-Ladakh region because of the gradual ascend it offers. As you climb higher in altitude in a gradual manner, the chances of experiencing Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms are far lesser compared to the Leh–Manali Highway. There are quite a few good accommodation options en-route and you can get quite a few fuel stations if you are in need of refueling. Having said that, traffic is fairly high in this route and jams are a regular occurrence.

    Best Season to Travel:

    Srinagar-Leh highway remains closed for approximately 6 months in a year, especially during the winter season. Snow starts to build up from the month of November and it usually takes till end of May for the snow to melt just enough to clear the road surface. The season starts as soon as the highway is declared open by BRO, typically by the end of May or at the beginning of June. So from June till October is the time when you should plan for your Leh trip. If we break it up further, then the best period for travelling to Leh-Ladakh would be from mid of July to August end.

    June to mid-July - Low season. The highway would just open up and BRO would be at work to repair the road surface.
    Mid-July to August End - Peak Season. The road condition would be at its best during this period.
    September-October - Mid Season. Monsoon would have created havoc and the roads would be in partially broken condition.

    Travel Diary:

    Here's the travel diary which would give you a fair bit of understanding on what to expect, and what not to expect, on your road trip along Srinagar-Leh National Highway.

    Srinagar - Sonmarg : 80 KM
    The first couple of hours drive till Sonmarg is quite similar to driving in the plains. Sonmarg is an important attraction in Kashmir Valley for the picturesque scenary it offers. A number of Bollywood movies have been shot at this place. You can take a tea break here to cherish the unbounded natural beauty of Sonmarg.

    Sonmarg - Zoji La Pass : 20 KM
    The drive becomes difficult after crossing the beautiful Sonmarg. Soon after Sonmarg, you will find a check post. You might have to wait at the check post for sometime as there are predefined timings for ascending and descending to/from Zoji La pass. In-case you arrive at a time which is marked as descending period, then the gate will be closed for proceeding towards Zoji La.

    Don't be disappointed if you find the gate closed. Instead bring out your camera and go for a photo shoot at the enchanting surroundings on the backdrop of beautiful Kashmir Valley. A day halt at Sonmarg to take a few glimpses of the amazing scenery can also be an excellent choice. You have quite a few good accommodation options at Sonmarg.

    As you approach Zoji La pass at an altitude of 3582 meters, the real challenge starts. From then on till Leh town, you will have to be very careful - especially if it starts to downpour.

    Zoji La Pass - Drass : 42 KM
    As you start to descend after passing the snow-clad Zoji La, you will be greeted by lovely meadows with lush green carpets of grass dotted with unknown wildflowers. Also there are many glaciers off the highway that would result in several miniature waterfalls. It is arguably the most beautiful stretch in the entire Srinagar-Leh highway and if time permits, you should get out of the car and rejuvenate yourself in its out-of-the-world charm.

    Up next is the Drass sector - famous for the War Memorial dedicated to the martyrs of Kargil War 2009. If you decide to stop over there for paying tribute to the brave soldiers of Indian Army who laid down their lives to protect the nation, then make sure to visit the War Memorial Museum for glimpses of rare pictures taken during the war.

    Drass - Kargil : 65 KM
    Your next target is Kargil - the actual battle-field of the 2009 war. It takes around an hour and a half to arrive at the Kargil town from Drass. Lots of eateries with toilet facilities are available at Kargil, so you can possibly take a break, freshen up and satisfy your appetite before proceeding further. It's a major town along Srinagar-Leh highway, so you can also get plenty of options to stay there for a day or two.

    Kargil - Mulbekh : 35 KM
    Kargil to Leh is another 210 kilometers which should not take you more than 7 hours at a leisurely pace. There are two high altitude passes in Kargil-Leh stretch, but first you will be arriving at Mulbekh town - which is at a distance of 35 KM from Kargil and famous for the rock carvings of Buddha. If you need to fill up the fuel tank, then make sure you do it here. Although there are fuel stations at Wakha and Khaltsi before Leh, they often run out of fuel stock. So don't take any chances and load your fuel tank up at either Kargil or Mulbekh.

    Mulbekh - Namki La - Fotu La Pass : 50 KM
    After Mulbekh, another 15 KM driving will lead you to Namki La pass - which is situated at an altitude of 3815 meters. Namki La literally means 'the pillar in the sky'. The level of difficulty is much lesser compared to the Zoji La pass. The last of the three mountain passes on Srinagar-Leh highway, the Fotu La Pass is located at a distance of 35 KM from Namki La Pass. Among the three, Fotu La is situated at the highest elevation - 4108 meters above the sea level.

    Fotu La Pass - Lamayuru : 15 KM
    A 15 KM drive from Fotu La will take you to Lamayuru, which is an important abode of Buddhism, besides being the gateway to Zanskar trekking trails. You can take a little time-out to catch the famous Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and Wanla Monastery at this place. Lamayuru has a few decent accommodation options as it's a favorite junction for the European tourists who go for the Zanskar and Padum trek.

    Lamayuru to Leh : 108 KM
    Leh is a little above 100 KM from Lamayuru, which also means that you should be able to conquer the Srinagar-Leh highway within another 3 hours. The road from Lamayuru to Leh is in excellent condition, but exercise due caution as the blinding corners and unexpected sharp plunges can be enough for you to lose control of your vehicle in a matter of seconds, especially if you are driving at high speed.

    If all goes well, then you will be crossing the Pathar Sahib Gurudwara after 2 hours and arrive at the Leh town in another 30 minutes at the end of this hectic yet exhilarating journey!

    Tourist Attractions En-route Srinagar-Leh:

    There are quite a few important tourist attractions along the National Highway. If you are not in a hurry to arrive at Leh, then you can take some time out to explore the following places en-route -

    Sonmarg: With abundance of snow furnished all over like a white carpet, Sonmarg, which literally means 'the meadow of gold', is a prime tourist attraction in Kashmir Valley. It offers great views of two Himalayan glaciers - Kolhoi Glacier and Machoi Glacier. Besides, you can also catch the incredibly beautiful sight of four snow-clad peaks - Sirbal Peak, Kolhoi Peak, Amarnath Peak and Machoi Peak at Sonmarg. Himalayan lakes of Vishansar Lake, Krishansar Lake, Gangabal Lake and Gadsar Lake can be accessed through trekking routes from Sonmarg. A short trip can lead you to Yusmarg, a perfect picnic spot on the confluage of two rivers on the backdrop of picturesque mountain ranges.

    You can even hire horses at Sonmarg for the trip up to Thajiwas glacier. You may also spend some quality time on the rocky river-bed of meandering Sindh river, which is the largest tributary of the Jehlum River in Kashmir Valley. River rafting is another attraction at this place.

    Drass: Kargil War Memorial is the main attraction at Drass. Another popular attraction is the Mushko Valley, which is famous for variety of wild flowers.

    Kargil: Kargil is a haven for adventure lovers interested in trekking, rock-climbing and mountaineering. Sani Monastery, established way back in the 1st century during the rule of Kanishka (Kushan dynasty) is a must visit historical monument at Kargil.

    Rangdum Valley, which is one of the most extreme and isolated parts of the Suru Valley, is located midway between Kargil and Zanskar and it's the gateway for trekkers to Padum. The massive Rangdum Monastery attracts large number of tourists every year.

    Mulbekh: The 9 meters tall statue of Maitreya Buddha draws lots of visitors to Mulbekh Monastery. It is also famous for its two gompas - Drukpa (Modern Buddhist school of thought) and Gelugpa (Ancient Buddhist school of thought).

    Lamayuru: The history of Lamayuru monastery dates back to the 11th century. Founded by Mahasiddhacharya Naropa, it belongs to Red-Hat sect of Buddhism. The monastery has a rich collection of ancient artifacts and wall paintings. Lunar hills, which resembles the surface on moon, is another favorite destination for photographers and trekkers.

    Essential Things to Carry:

    There are a few essential items which could prove handy during your Srinagar-Leh drive/ride. Given below is the list of items that you must carry without fail.
    • Fully charged torchlight.
    • Jack, spanner, screwdriver set, nuts and bolts.
    • Air compressor and foot pump.
    • Spare tyre.
    • Jump start cables.
    • Towing Rope.
    • Suitable vessels for carrying spare fuel.
    • Coolant, break oil and engine oil.
    • Sufficient amount of drinking water, biscuits and other snacks.

    Important Tips for Srinagar-Leh Journey:

    1. Before you set out on the journey, service your vehicle fully and insepect all the elements minutely. Get it double checked by another service center if possible.

    2. Ensure that you are comfortable with basic maintenance activities in case of any mechanical issues.

    3. Keep the user manual of your vehicle with you. It can guide you in emergency situations.

    4. Carry all vehicle related documents including RC, DL, and Insurance Copy.

    5. Take a printout of the route map, highlighting the fuel stations and hospitals en-route.

    6. While crossing a tricky section of road, landslides, water crossings or slushy areas, wait for the previous vehicle to pass through completely. The same rule applies when there is a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Don't rush through any tricky stretches. If needed, get out of the car, inspect the road and plan your actions accordingly. Half-clutch measure must be avoided at any cost.

    7. Do not use heaters while driving. Hot air released by the heater decreases the level of Oxygen inside the vehicle, which coupled with AMS symptoms may result in breathing difficulty.

    8. Carry additional fuel at all the time. You never know what's there in store for you in the future. Expect a 15% less fuel economy from your vehicle's usual mileage on city roads. If you are getting 10 KMPL fuel economy during your day to day usage, then don't expect anything more than 8.5 KMPL on Srinagar-Leh National Highway.

    9. In case you need to refuel during the journey, make sure to do so at the first available option. Fuel stations running out of fuel stocks is a common incident in this part of the world.

    10. Being a sensitive area close to the border, there are chances of unrest caused by anti-national elements and organizations around the Independence Day. If possible, avoid planning your Srinagar – Leh trip during 13th to 17th August.

    Fuel Stations Available on Srinagar-Leh Highway:

    Srinagar - 0 KM
    Manigam - 27 KM
    Sonmarg - 79 KM
    Kargil - 202 KM
    Mulbekh - 238 KM
    Wakha - 250 KM
    Khaltse - 345 KM

    Accommodation Options En-route Srinagar-Leh:

    Sonmarg - Lots of options are there. From Government Guest House to private hotels to luxury resorts, you can get a staying option according to your budget.

    Drass - Decent number of private hotels are available for a comfortable stay.

    Kargil - Budget, economy and deluxe hotels are available in good numbers.

    Mulbekh - A private guest house and a few home stays are the few options available.

    Lamayuru - Hotels are plenty. Besides you can also book one of the comfortable home stays.

    Hospitals and Medical Centers En-route:

    Srinagar and Leh both have adequate medical facilities and quality healthcare services. Along the Srinagar-Leh National Highway, critical care hospitals are there at Sonmarg and Kargil only. Besides, Drass and Lamayuru have a couple of medical facilities with limited treatment options.

    Local Sightseeing at Leh-Ladakh:

    Tourist attractions at Leh, modes of getting around, local taxi and bus services to tourism circuits, local bike rental services, Leh accommodation options, kindly refer to this thread -
    The Ultimate Guide to Tourist Attractions, Transportation & Accommodation Options at Leh Ladakh.

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