This is Part 4 of our 5 part series on planning the ultimate road trip to Leh Ladakh in India. We will cover every aspect – itinerary, accommodation, packing, driving – of planning an unforgettable Ladakh road trip!
Read Part 1 – Leh Ladakh Road Trip I (Gulmarg and Leh Ladakh) (opens in new tab)
Read Part 2 – Leh Ladakh Road Trip II (Nubra, Pangong, and Manali) (opens in new tab)
Read Part 3 – Packing for a road trip to Leh and Ladakh (opens in new tab)
Read Part 5 – Accommodation: Luxury Camping in Ladakh (opens in new tab)
Ladakh is the forbidden land – it boasts of twinkling stars, the highest motorable road in the world, panoramas dotted with monasteries, some of the highest mountain passes in the world, and the brightest rainbows ever! Its soundlessness and cobalt blue skies seduce visitors in no time. But be warned! There are also treacherous roads by the dozen, patchy connectivity, lack of infrastructure, and traffic jams on aforementioned dubious roads overlooking steep cliffs (no kidding!).
We’ve driven through beautiful scenery in Iceland and New Zealand, so we didn’t quite know what to expect from our Ladakh road trip. Now that we’re back, we can safely say that it surpassed all our expectations. That said, it’s all very good to dream of floating and gliding through this surreal faraway land but keep these 10 things in mind before you plan a road trip to Ladakh:
DO make sure you’re a good driver and comfortable off-roading
Roads start getting worse once you enter the state of Jammu and Kashmir during your road trip to Ladakh. The terrain is gorgeous but quite inhospitable at times – think winding roads, unpaved alleyways overlooking steep cliffs, and traffic jams on high mountain passes. Make sure you’re comfortable with hill driving and never drive if you’re the slightest bit tired. The roads in and around Ladakh need your full attention every second of the way. Confidence is good, but overconfidence can be hazardous so make sure you never get complacent. Also, try to drive a 4X4 or SUV if possible. It’s not essential but it will make your life easier.
If you’re driving back from Ladakh to Delhi via Manali, expect to encounter slippery roads, potholes, unpaved roads, and stretches of rubble and grit. It’s an ultra-scenic drive – one of the prettiest we’ve been on anywhere in the world – but it’s also a back-breaking one. My backside is hurting just thinking about it 😉
So make sure you’re a competitive driver and you’re comfortable off-roading before you set off on your road trip of Ladakh. Vid drove the entire Delhi-Srinagar-Ladakh-Manali-Delhi stretch himself and LOVED it. However if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can fly to Leh City or Srinagar and rent a cab with a driver.
DO carry medicines and supplies
Ladakh is one of the remotest areas in the world. Medical supplies can be hard to find in certain areas but it’s best to go well-equipped. Carry a first-aid kit and any medicines that you use on a daily basis. Here are 3 things we feel you should keep in mind:
- Don’t forget to carry tablets for altitude sickness (We carried Diamox but didn’t need it)
- Try to acclimatise to high altitude gradually. This isn’t a problem at all if you’re driving to Ladakh and stopping along the way. The gradual rate of ascent will give you plenty of time to acclimatise to higher altitudes.
- Try to choose hotels or camps that have oxygen supplies, should you need them. Confirm this in advance before booking your accommodation.
Don’t let all this scare you. These are just precautionary measures for it’s better to be safe than sorry. I should add that neither Vid nor I needed to use a single medicine during our 3 week long road trip to Ladakh. As some of you might know, I suffer from allergic bronchitis. Everyone around me kept telling me to be cautious at such high altitudes because oxygen is rare in some parts of Ladakh. However, I did not need to use my inhaler even once in Ladakh – the air is pure here and both of us breathed well. It was only on reaching back to Delhi (and with it, pollution) that my breathing trouble came back 😉
DO carry toilet paper – public toilets are a rarity (and grubby!)
If, like us, you start your road trip of Ladakh in Delhi, then you’ll find the occasional public toilet at a gas station till you reach the state of Jammu and Kashmir. After that, public toilets are few and far in between. Well, you’ll have no option but to err commune with nature 😉 I remember we were repeatedly told to use the ‘Incan Style’ toilet while exploring the Peruvian countryside – it’s the same in India! Ergo don’t forget to carry rolls of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. You’re going to need it!!
DO NOT refer to Google Maps for time frames
Now we drive around in most countries we visit. Usually we refer to Google Maps to estimate the time it will take for us to cover a certain distance. But this apparently common-sensical method doesn’t work in the land of chaos. Don’t ever refer to Google Maps to estimate the time for driving a stretch of road on your road trip to Ladakh.
Let me give you an example: The drive from Gulmarg (Jammu & Kashmir) to Kargil (Jammu & Kashmir) is 230 km long i.e. 4-5 hours on paper. Realistically it takes 12-13 hours if you’re driving yourself to Ladakh. As a rule of thumb, start your days early in order to avoid driving on treacherous roads once it’s dark.
DO make lots of unsolicited stops along the way
Safety isn’t the only reason you should start your drives early on the way to Ladakh. This road trip is one of the most scenic in the world – there are incredible panoramas at every corner. We found ourselves stopping our car every 10 minute to click photographs of azure skies, glaciers, gushing rivers, and rainbows. Drives that were supposed to take 2 hours would often take us 4 hours – but this is Ladakh, the journey is truly what matters. It will leave you gob-smacked!
DO NOT depend on Mobile Connectivity or expect good internet
Mobile connectivity is extremely sparse in Ladakh. Only postpaid Airtel and BSNL connections work in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. However once you cross the town of Sonmarg on your road trip of Ladakh, you will only get connectivity only in a couple of major towns. After the town of Kargil, connectivity is extremely sparse.
Airtel connections work in Leh City and BSNL connections work in most major tourist centres of Ladakh including Leh city, Pangong Lake, and Nubra Valley. Mobile data is but a myth in these parts – there is no 3G connectivity, so it’s next to impossible to browse the internet using your mobile phone. A perfect excuse for a digital detox 😀
Here’s the thing about internet in Ladakh – the speed is pretty decent when wifi connectivity is working well. Most guesthouses, B&Bs, cafes, and hotels have free wifi. However internet in the area is available through BSNL landlines and these are ‘down’ (i.e. not functional) for entire days at a time. If you’re lucky, you’ll get internet in Ladakh but don’t bank on it – or you’ll be disappointed.
If you’re happy disconnecting for a few days, you’ll be in your happy place in Ladakh. As for wifi fiends like yours truly, expect to get frustrated….very frustrated 😉
DO make sure your paperwork is in order
Ladakh is close to the borders with neighbouring countries and as a result there’s a big army presence in the area. If you are a foreign national, in addition to a Visa for India, you will need special permits to visit certain parts of Ladakh. If you are driving a rental vehicle, make sure you have all the documents for the car handy. Please also bear in mind that since 2015, rental cars are not allowed in Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, or Tso Moriri – if you have driven a rental car to Leh, you’ll have to hire a local taxi to visit places beyond Leh City.
DO NOT follow your GPS blindly
We follow our GPS blindly (we love Maps.me!!) in most countries we visit. However this is not a good idea in India. Your GPS will always guide you to the shortest route but there is a high chance of roads on this route being in extremely bad shape. Let me give you an example of a mistake we made on our road trip of Ladakh:
On crossing the city of Jalandhar (Punjab), our GPS advised us to take ‘shortcuts’ towards Gurdaspur and Binanagar. Instead of following the highway and driving towards Pathankot, we obeyed the GPS. This was the worst idea ever! The roads around Gurdaspur were in horrible condition and we ended up wasting over 2 hours on an already long day.
To avoid such errors, it’s best to follow these 3 things:
- Read up a bit about the route in advance – a number of websites and blogs provide detailed information about these routes. Make sure you read a few recent entries so you are updated about the condition of roads in a particular area.
- Try to stay on the highway as much as possible, even if your GPS suggests otherwise.
- Always ask locals – people in India are friendly and will go out of their way to help and guide you
DO NOT forget your sunscreen
You can refer to our guide on packing for a road trip in Ladakh for a list of everything we packed for Ladakh.
If you, like me, burn easily, then don’t forget to take a bevy of sunscreens for the face and body. Ladakh’s sun is searing even when the weather is chilly. We like and carry sunscreens by Avene or Kiehls. Shieseido makes some great sunscreens as well.
The altitudes are bound to leave your lips and skin feeling dry and parched. Make sure you carry an ultra moisturising lipbalm with a high SPF.
DO give back (in whatever way you deem fit!)
There’s something I haven’t told you about our road trip to Ladakh. But first look at that cherubic smile??
As some of you might know, it was my birthday just before we left on our road trip of Ladakh. Instead of birthday gifts, I asked all my friends and family to give me as much stationery as they possibly could. They got me TONS of stationery. Vid and I went and added some more stuff to this stash and set out on our road trip to Ladakh with a whole backseat full of stationery- notebooks, crayons,paints, pens etc 🙂
Throughout our road trip we visited local schools that work with less privileged kids in order to give them however much stationery they need for their kids.
The more I travel, the more I realise something : education, something most of us take for granted, is truly the greatest gift of them all. It’s the ONLY way to dispel ignorance and all sorts of societal evils (be it patriarchy, homophobia, casual sexism, or casteism).
So try to give back in some way on your roadtrip to Ladakh. It DOES NOT have to be an earth-shattering endeavour because every little helps. You could teach less-priveleged kids while travelling, take 1 child under your wing, volunteer at a local orphanage, or donate wherever you deem fit – do WHATEVER it takes to spread the gift of education. It’s so rewarding and SO much fun.
And if you ever travel to Ladakh make sure you carry food or stationery (pens, pencils, notebooks) instead of money. Donate it to the local schools here- they could use a helping hand or two!!
That’s it – everything you need to know about planning a road trip to Ladakh. Don’t litter plastic bottles and other such, travel responsibly in this remote area, and have fun savouring gorgeous panoramas 🙂