On the Way to Ladakh ©Solange Hando
Hoping to go to Ladakh one day? Don't fly straight to Leh unless you're really short of time. Head for the lovely mountain resort of Manali, relax for a couple of days, then take the high road to Ladakh. It's one of the most spectacular rides you'll ever experience and it gives you a chance to acclimatise and lessen the risk of altitude sickness when you reach the capital.
Allow three days to enjoy the ever changing scenery, from snowy peaks and hanging glaciers to blue mountain lakes, dramatic rocks and precipitous cliffs.
As you'll see above, there's never a dull moment so relax and take it easy. Just above Manali, Rohtang is the first of five high altitude passes, reaching 13,000 feet or more.
Even in summer, the snow falls on Rohtang but it's promptly cleared and the pass is rarely closed for more than a day. When that happens though, expect plenty of company along the way, tinselled trucks crawling up from the valley, roadside kitchens setting up their wares, honeymooners from the south posing in the snow and the odd flock of sheep and goats.
But once you get over the top, it all seems to vanish as if by magic.
You can spend your first night in a lodge in the quiet village of Keylong down in the valley (notice the sign: no petrol station for the next 365 Kms), then the next day start climbing again, crossing the Baralacha pass at over 16,000 feet. The highest will come later, Tanglung La, 17,582 feet.
But here's you reward, below the pass: a sprinkling of parachute tents (made from discarded army parachutes), bright and cheerful, beckoning along the road with the promise of a roaring fire inside and hot tea and noodles. In this vast wilderness, what more could anyone want?
Sarchu, Awesome and Cold ©Solange Hando
A moonscape, all shades of pink and blue? Join me... Sarchu is beautiful, not a house in sight, but the tented camp has proper beds, blankets and hot water bottles. Even so, it's the coldest place where I've ever slept and I couldn't brush my teeth in the morning, the water was frozen.
Meanwhile on the edge of the road, truck drivers were lighting fires right under the fuel tanks to warm them up. Dangerous, I asked? Sure, but what can we do?
The Young Indus near Leh ©Solange Hando
Later, when you have crossed the high plateau dotted with nomad tents, the icy peaks begin to give way to mineral rich mountains glowing in amazing colours under the blue sky. The Indus greets you with limpid waters and the first greenery clinging to its white pebble banks.
Beyond the dramatic gorge, there will be willows and poplars along the river until at the heart of this beautiful mountain desert, you reach the stunning oasis of Leh, the legendary capital of Ladakh.