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Which is better Manali to Leh or Srinagar to Leh

Discussion in 'Jammu & Kashmir' started by DhongiBaba, Oct 23, 2016.

  1. DhongiBaba

    DhongiBaba Active Member

    I am planning a quick trip to Leh in days to come before roads close and it gets too cold for comfort. We will leave Delhi and plan to drive to Leh so wondering which route is best as we are mostly looking for good scenic places to take pictures and hopefully stay a few nights en route in some remote villages without dying of hunger if you know what I mean.

    Which is better? Manali to Leh route or Srinagar to Leh route and is there another route that I don't know of?

    How long would you say it would take using either of routes to get to Leh if we only stopped for night's rest.

  2. briannagodess

    briannagodess Well-Known Member

    Manali Leh Route or Srinagar Leh Route - Which is Better?

    Roads to Leh (Image Courtesy of Make My Trip)

    When it comes to approaching Leh, you have two routes that you can choose from, either from Manali to Leh or from
    Srinagar to Leh. Both routes are scenic, passing through beautiful landscapes and requires a bit of a climb too. But it's always the same question, 'Which of these two routes, Manali to Leh or Srinagar to Leh, is a better option?' The truth is, it mainly depends on the interests of the traveller. Some prefer the other route because it's more adventurous while others prefer the other route because the chances of acquiring Acute Mountain Sickness is lower here. So if you have to choose between the two, you need to know their pros and also their downsides.

    In-Depth Comparison of the Two Routes

    1. Distance from Delhi
    • Manali Leh Route - The distance of Manali from Delhi is about 582 kilometres. Driving this distance can take around 13 to 14 hours, add in another hour for stopovers or delays encountered. From Manali, it is another 500 kilometres again to reach Leh, so about 2 more days, including the acclimatisation. Manali is at a closer distance from Delhi as compared to Srinagar so this route wins the first round. It would be more economical and convenient to reach Manali from Delhi and continue on to Leh from there. You can directly reach Manali from Delhi too, without any night halts in between, especially if you leave early in the morning. After a night halt in Solang Valley, you can continue on your journey for Leh the next day.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - The distance of Srinagar from Delhi is about 839 kilometres. Driving this distance can take around 16 to 17 hours, adding in the delays or stopovers you might encounter along the way. As you can see, Srinagar is further away from Delhi so it can take around a day or two to reach it. If you're coming from Delhi, it's a bit impractical to reach Srinagar from here if Manali is located at a closer distance. Although, once you reach Srinagar, it is merely 415 kilometres away from Leh so the journey duration would be a breeze. You must have a night halt though at Pathankot since night time driving is a bit dangerous.
    2. Landscapes
    • Manali Leh Route - Manali itself is a beautiful hill station, filled with lush greenery during summer and thick blankets of snow in higher altitude areas during winter. The flowing Beas River in the hill station adds to its charm. Civilisation is very much alive here as well as the throngs of tourists that flock to the place. As soon as you ascend higher, into the barren lands, civilisation ceases to exist. And while you might spot a few towns where people reside, most of the landscapes you encounter are devoid of people. Brown hues of mountains, snow-capped mountains, the highest passes in the world... These are just some of the views in this route. Natural rock formations that seems like works of arts also line the roads. In some places, you need to cross over streams and even snow at higher altitude areas.
    Manali Leh Highway (Image Courtesy of My Spinny)
    • Srinagar Leh Route - Srinagar is a scenic place, with the Dal Lake leading to its natural beauty and open meadows which add to the greenery of the place. Much like the former route, sceneries start to take a sharp change as soon as you ascend. The last green place you would encounter is Sonamarg. After that, barren mountain landscapes would greet you. The change is very mesmerising though, from greeneries to now hues of different browns. Civilisation is also very limited but in main villages, you might still be able to find a few homes and some greenery at least. Snow can be expected on higher altitude areas too.
    Srinagar Leh Highway (Image Courtesy of Colour Odyssey)

    3. High Altitude Passes
    • Manali Leh Route - In this route, you would pass through five of the highest passes in the country and in the world. Rohtang La might be the easiest pass to cross over but even this poses some challenges especially just after the snow and glaciers of the region melt. Its name can be translated to the Pile of Corpses Pass, which is a reference to the numerous people who have died trying to cross this pass. Next is the Baralacha La, located in Zanskar, which is about 4,889 metres above sea level. This is one of the most treacherous passes in the region, covered by snow almost all-year round. You can also visit the Shaheed Sainik Bhavan here, where legend has it, three soldiers were eaten by a man. The next high altitude pass is the Nakee La, made difficult by the Gata Loops, a series of 21 hairpin bends that you need to go through to reach the pass. After which, you would pass through Lachulung La, which is about 5,059 metres above sea level so yet another difficult climb. Tanglang La is the second highest pass in the country, at an altitude of about 5,328 metres above sea level.
    Baralacha La in Manali Leh Route (Image Courtesy of Andy Polls)
    • Srinagar Leh Route - In contrast, you would only pass through three high altitude passes in this route. Zoji La is the first pass you would encounter, after Sonamarg, just barely nine kilometres away from it. This is the third highest pass on this route though and can be closed at certain times due to heavy rains and snowfalls. The pass is about 3,528 metres above sea level so still a bit lower as compared to the passes in Manali to Leh. The next pass is the Namika La, about 3,700 metres above sea level, found in the Zanskar range. There's a monastery and a Buddha rock carving here that you can visit as well. The last is the highest pass, Fotu La, at about 4,108 metres above sea level. It is approachable by a challenging drive through bends and curves. The views here are that of some greenery and snow-capped mountains. As compared to the Manali Leh Route, the high altitude passes in the Srinagar Leh Route are more manageable although still a bit dangerous for inexperienced drivers.
    Fotu La (Image Courtesy of Biswarup Sarkar)

    4. Difficulty of Driving and Road Conditions
    • Manali Leh Route - Aside from a short distance from Kiratpur to Sundernagar, the roads from Delhi to Manali are smooth and easy to drive on. Your only issue would be the traffic but aside from that, driving in this stretch is as good as can be. After Manali though, you would encounter many issues up to Leh. From Manali to Khoksar though, roads have been freshly laid recently so you can traverse through this easily. From Khoksar to Sarchu is another good stretch, but from Sarchu to Pang, there are some stretches of bad patches of roads. However, from Pang to Leh, road conditions are okay again. Overall, this route is manageable when it comes to road conditions. The difficulty of driving would take place due to the curves and bends, more so with the Gata Loops. If you do not have any experience with driving through hilly terrains, it's best to avoid this route or hire another experience driver in place of you.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - Apart from the traffic, the drive from Delhi to Srinagar is an easy one. Now, from Srinagar to Sonamarg, it's the same condition, roads are smooth and well-laid. As soon as you ascend to reach your first pass, that's when the issue occurs. The patches are a bit challenging though manageable as long as you drive carefully. After which, you'd reach Dras and road conditions are good again. You would also pass by the Hangro Loops, the equivalent of the Gata Loops in this route. The remaining passes also pose some challenges but aside from these, roads are good again until Nimmu, up to Leh. As compared to the former route though, it's easier to drive on this stretch especially if you have some experiences with hilly driving. But if you don't have any experiences at all, it's best to hire a local driver who knowns this terrain well.
    5. Opening Times
    • Manali Leh Route - The Manali Leh Route is only open a few months in a year, from the end of May until the middle of October. Usually through, the first few days of its opening is quite tricky. With the melting of the snow, the roads might be more difficult to pass through, and can pose some problems. Therefore, it's wiser to wait for a while, maybe until the middle to the end of June, before heading on over to Leh from Manali.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - The Srinagar Leh Route remains open from early May until late October, sometimes extending until November, depending on the weather conditions. As such, this route remains open for the most time, as compared to the former route. Generally, the Srinagar Leh Route is plagued by snow a bit later, at November, instead of October. So you can still enjoy a trip to Leh even if it's late October already with this route.
    6. Possibility of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
    • Manali Leh Route - The ascent to Leh via this route is very sudden so the chance of acquiring Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is higher. That is why it is required to have at least two night halts, one in Manali at the Solang Valley and another in Keylong, halfway to Leh. If you don't do these night halts, you won't acclimatise properly as your body isn't used to the higher altitudes. Keep a lookout for possible symptoms of AMS like dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches and shortness of breath. If these symptoms occur, you need to descend at a lower altitude region. You can also consult a doctor before your trip to Leh via this route, and he or she can prescribe some medications to avoid the symptoms of AMS.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - The possibility of acquiring Acute Mountain Sickness with this route is a bit lower. The ascents here are gradual and even then, not that high. Just make sure that you take a night halt in Dras or even in Kargil, prior to ascending to the last two high altitude passes. Again, keep a lookout for possible symptoms of AMS but there's a lower chance of acquiring it from this route.
    7. Permits Required
    • Manali Leh Route - In order to pass through Rohtang Pass in your own vehicle, considering that it's not a Himachal Pradesh registered one, you need to acquire a permit prior to your scheduled departure for Leh from Manali. You can get the permit from the SDM Office in Manali, open between 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. The office is closed though during Sundays, second Saturdays of each month and also national holidays. Make sure you acquire the permit as soon as you arrive in Manali because the queue might be long. Unfortunately, you cannot obtain the permit online. Keep your hotel booking proofs, identification proof, driving license, pollution certificate of vehicle and vehicle registration certificate at hand as well. There are no fees for the permit although you do need to pay a congestion fee at the Gulaba checkpoint on your day of travel from Manali to Leh.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - You won't require any vehicle permit at all to enter the Srinagar Leh Route. Thus, despite its distance from Delhi, you won't waste any day once you reach Srinagar since you can continue on your journey for Leh. Unlike with the former route, especially during peak tourist season, the application for the vehicle permit for Rohtang Pass might take a half day at the least and a whole day at the most. This is yet another advantage of the Srinagar Leh Route.
    8. Availability of Tourist Infrastructures (Petrol Pumps, Hotels or Restaurants)
    • Manali Leh Route - As compared to the other route, the Manali Leh Route has lesser civilisation and as a result, lesser tourist facilities too. There are petrol pumps in Manali but beyond that, they are scarce. In fact, you can only find a petrol pump in Tandi, after Manali, about 365 kilometres away from Leh still. So make sure you fill your fuel tank here and also bring a litre more as a safety blanket in case you encounter any mishaps. When it comes to accommodation options, Manali has plenty of them of course but beyond that, you need to stay in either home stays or tented accommodations. In small towns like Gramphoo, Khoksar, Sissu, Gondla and Tandi, there are HP guest houses as well as some tented accommodations. Keylong has a number of small hotels that you can stay in. After Keylong, you can mainly find tented accommodations only and very sparse too. Now, for dining options, you only have a few options and they are mostly roadside dhabas. It's best to bring your own snacks and water so you won't get famished in-between roads that don't have any dhabas at all.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - This route has better tourist infrastructures. For example, you can find petrol pumps in almost all towns you pass through like Sonamarg, Kargil, Mulbekh, Wakha and Khalts. So having your car filled with petrol won't be any issue at all. Even with hotel options, you have plenty here especially in Sonamarg, Dras and Kargil. Even in smaller towns beyond these, you would usually find guest houses along the way. The same goes for dining options, you have a few restaurants and many dhabas along the way, especially in Sonamarg, Dras, Kargil and Mulbekh.
    Dras in Srinagar Leh Route (Image Courtesy of A Journey to Heaven and Back)

    9. Journey Duration
    • Manali Leh Route - At the minimum, you can reach Leh from this route, within about three days. It is not recommended to directly reach Leh without any night halts so the minimum days come up to this. After a whole day of travel from Delhi to Manali, you need to rest for the night here and acquire the permit for Rohtang La as well. So that is already one day and one night of your journey. The next day, you would be travelling until Keylong and rest for the night there. So that is already one day and one night of your journey again. And lastly, from Keylong to Leh is yet another day, that is if you don't encounter any delays along the way.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - If you leave early from Delhi, you can reach Pathankot in about 10 hours and you can stay the night here. Or you can opt to continue until Srinagar but you still need to take a night halt here. So that is one day and one night already of your journey. After which, you would need to reach Sonamarg and then Dras, and take another night halt here or in Kargil. Again, that's a day and a night of your journey. And the last stretch can be covered in a whole day as well so that makes it a minimum of three-day journey as well.
    10. Safety
    • Manali Leh Route - The Manali Leh Route is dangerous in the sense that it encompasses the highest passes in the country. However, with careful driving, you would be able to traverse through this passes. And if you have the experience as well, then the drive might be more enjoyable and safe too. Since the route is closed during winters, you won't encounter landslides as much, except during the end of May or first few weeks of June. Monsoons might also be quite dangerous for the lower areas of this route but the higher areas rarely receive rainfall though.
    • Srinagar Leh Route - The Srinagar Leh Route, right now, is rattled by unrests and protests following the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, head of a terrorist group in the region. The protests and unrests started this July 2016 and has continued for the past few months. Thankfully, the condition of the region has been better these last few months. It's still best though to travel to the region, especially around Sonamarg, during the dark to avoid the stone pelting that the protesters had resorted to during these times.
    Summary of Comparison of Two Routes

    CategoryManali Leh RouteSrinagar Leh Route
    Distance from Delhi582 Kilometres839 Kilometres
    LandscapesBarren Lands and Snow-Capped MountainsBarren Lands and Snow-Capped Mountains
    High Altitude PassesFiveThree
    Driving DifficultyMedium to HighLow to Medium
    Opening TimesMay/June to OctoberMay to October/November
    Possibility of AMSHighLow
    Permits RequiredVehicle Permit for Rohtang LaNone
    Availability of Tourist InfrastructuresFewMany
    Journey DurationThree DaysThree Days
    SafetyDangers Due to High PassesDangers Due to Military Issues
    The table above depicts the differences between the two routes. As you can see, there are stark differences between the two like their distances from Delhi, their number of high altitude passes, tourist infrastructures along the way and their difficulty of traversing through. But they also have some similarities like the beautiful views along the way and journey duration. With regards to safety, both has their downsides, with the Manali Leh Route being dangerous when it comes to terrains while the Srinagar Leh Route being dangerous due to the military unrests. As such, both has their pros and cons, it's up to you to decide which one best fits you.

    The Verdict

    In a nutshell, the Manali Leh Route is more for the adventure seekers who have some experience in driving through tough terrains. The views in this route are amazing, barren landscapes, distant snow-capped mountains and sometimes, a few civilisation living through these tough conditions. While this route is more challenging, it is also more satisfying especially for the thrill-seekers. The short time that the route is open, from May to October, is the best time to go through with this route. Do keep in mind that this route has higher chances of acquiring AMS and there are lesser tourist infrastructures too.

    The Srinagar Leh Route is a bit easier as you only pass through five high passes in this route. Tourist infrastructures are available in almost every town you pass by too. The views are also beautiful so there would be no compromise even if you chose this route. The ascents here are gradual so you can enjoy the views without worrying about AMS too much. This route is also open for a longer time so you can partake in the journey with a longer time frame in mind. More tourist infrastructures, no permits required and safe driving make this route a good choice. However, with the recent military unrests in the region, safety is an issue that you have to keep in mind.

    I hope this helps you.:)