Sleepless in Sarchu : Tweaking the Manali-Leh Highway

Sleepless in Sarchu : Tweaking the Manali-Leh Highway

Manali-Leh is only one of four land routes to Leh. It is also the road you love to hate , if you recognise the early signs of hypoxia and altitude sickness.

Doing this road you have two main options : basic risk reduction (which probably will spare you from anything more dramatic than headaches and mild nausea ) and tweaking the itinerary so that you are closer to full working order , every day.


* Get a night in Keylong
* Don´t sleep in Sarchu , aka The Vomit Hilton

That´s all there is to it , really : with a night in Manali (1950) and the next in Sissu or Keylong (just under 3100 ) , you´ll certainly feel better the night in Keylong than anyone flying in to Leh, from three reasons : Manali is higher than 1500 meters , Keylong is some 400 meters lower than Leh , and the Rothang La is 900 meters higher than Keylong. The second leg of the road is the real challenge , moving for a major part between the altitudes of Mont Blanc and Everest Base Camp but most people scrape by even when doing the the all night Manali-Leh run if they don´t get any lengthy delays at max altitude . This is an important caveat , I have experienced being snagged around five thousand meters twice , and the first time it involved dealing with an unconscious fellow passenger.



The first major change that adaption to altitude brings about is the ability to hyperventilate , a change that you obviously want to be on the right side of before hitting the 5000+ passes . This shift occurs somewhere around the third night at altitude, 2000 to 3000 meters, for the large majority. The more time you´ve spent around 3000 , the better : always chose a night in Keylong over a night in Manali. After your three nights , safe ascent guide lines still apply : if you want to do Sarchu , do it on the return leg.


The plane :
Acclimatization starts , very slowly , at 1500 meters altitude. A marginal tweak that comes in to play here is the time before Delhi : a long intercontinental flight can be a slight advantage , if you don´t faff about in Delhi. If you don´t have a clear goal with staying in Delhi, arrange your next leg of the trip beforehand : trains from the IIndia Rail site , buses via Redbus

Shimla is at 2200 meters , and easily reached from Delhi : take the night train (22-ish) to Kalka , and the connecting toy train 5.30 , arriving in Shimla , lunch time. Overnight buses connect with Manali.


Dhasa is at … well , to start with it´s spread out along a series of ridges . The highest sections are around 1800 meters , just over the threshold for acclimatization response. Don´t expect any substantial acclimatization effects from a short stay. On the other hand there are some treks starting here which will give you a definitive edge , like going to and staying overnight at Triund (2800-ish).


Manali is at 1950 meters , a working but far from ideal altitude to start acclimatization. The first tweak is to go on past Manali to Solang, some twenty klicks north , which lands you at 2500 meters.

Secondly you have Vashisht on the east side of the river : a lot lower than Solang , but still higher than Manali , and within backpacker budget.
The third possible tweak here is to take a day trip up to the Rothang . HPTDC buses makes daily runs in season.


25 thoughts on “Sleepless in Sarchu : Tweaking the Manali-Leh Highway

  1. I heard there is a lower place after Sarchu that is a sleeping stopover. Do you have any inofrmation on this?

  2. After Darcha (3400) you come to Patseo (3800) . Beyond that everything is 4000+ until the sharp drop down to Upshi , same altitude as Leh. Very nice location , but practically no one going by jeep or bus stop here since it´s fifty klicks from Leh , with a very good road. I remember seeing one or two guest houses from the road , but have never stopped.

  3. I think Mike must be talking about Pang – some people sleep at Pang. However it is not lower than Sarchu.

    Vistet, do you have the right altitude of Bharatpur city – the group of tents below the Baralacha La? Could it be this place instead? There is no proper accommodation for the tourist but it is possible to sleep in the tent restaurant. You need to bring your own sleeping bag. This an option only if you are travelling with own transport.

  4. Pang is almost exactly 4500, i.e. 250 meters higher than Sarchu.Bharatpur – valley opening wide, a series of ridges on your left, meandering streams below-right, and a puddingesque mountain dead ahead, new colors every time. Beautiful place, would love to stay there , doubt very much it´s lower than Sarchu though.
    Janne Corax notes a LP , “lowest point” at 4200 , after Sarchu.

    At tthis point I should fire up Google Earth again , but I´m thinking of another way of finding out…

  5. Dear Vistet, Thanks for appraising us about AMS. We will e travelling by SX4 and Corolla in Mid June, 2009. After Ambala we will take one night halt at Manali? near Vashishta. We have planned to stop as per your recommendation at Jispa or Keylong for next night halt.Can we opt for night at Patseo, instead? Where do we stay? We don’t have tents or sleeping bags. But we can have them, if required-by borrowing or purchasing. Is there any significant accommodatio facility at Patseo?

  6. why do guys worry about High Altitude I d’ont understand …Is it a kind of phobia that you have created .Just take normal little precautions and drive with safety .I have seen 56 old year people crossing the passes without any hassle .


    • Dear Viraj,

      Do you know that hundreds if not thousand of very fit people ,including sherpas have DIED of mountain sickness.
      Some people are badly affected and some are hardly affected. BASIC precautions must be taken by ALL, since it is not possible to predict in advance . Do not panic but be carefyl. Arrange to come to a lower height even at night if need be!!!

  7. Well , that´s what this post is about : what is sensible precaution -maybe staying near safety guide lines , viewing them the same way we see diving tables ?

    Meanwhile that “phobia” that has killed a number of Hindu pilgrims this year en route to Kailash . On the road. And not on the passes. Understanding what makes you sick is the best precaution. The 56 year old argument is also a bit self defeating since the 50+ actually cope better with altitude , statistically. Could be behavior and experience , there are also anatomical differences that can work in this way.

    • Dear Vistet Sir,

      I agree with you. We were 7 persons in 2 cars as mentioned. And 5 out of 7 had AMS. We stayed at Manali 1st night, Keylong 2nd night and a marathon drive on 3rd day to reach Leh [well we had to call it a day opon reaching Upshi]. It was the unforgettable as well as a ‘must repeat’ experience for us. Of course, the headache and vomiting were hell like experience. But we got thro’ unscathed. In our group we had doctors – pediatrician, anaesthesiologist and surgeon as well. And we respect your recommendation. We took all the precautions. However, we felt that it requires at least 5-6 days for some acclimatization. Worst is the stuck up part at high altitude. If AMS hits you, you will be doomed. And if not you are a luckier one.
      Thanks again for your warnings.

      • Hello / Im planning a trip to Leh via Manali from Delhi( on innova). One of my queries, can we travel from Keylong to Leh in day time if we start early. I wanted to avoid stay at Sarchu due to tents and high altitude. Please advice way forward.

  8. Dear Gaurav,
    Keylong to Leh is a marathon run. 385 Km if I have not forgot. At some point car can have 10km/hr speed due to road conditions. We had travelled by our own Sx4 & Corolla. Innova definitely better, but still you will get some idea.

    You can do it in a day, but you have to start ealy. Leave Keylong by 5am. So, reach Keylong the previous night early-if it is only a single night halt. So, you will have to start from Manali early to avoid returning Manali Tourists say 8am.

    Avoid Sarchu or Pang for night stay. What Vistet is mentioning, is very true. At some point one will think that why we have chosen this route, but after passing thro’ that phase, he will say that oh! it was a life time experience!

  9. Keylong to Leh is a long day , but manageable : I´ve done it both ways on the clunky , loveable HRTC buses.
    385 klicks sounds slightly high , I´d say around 130 Manali-Keylong , and under 500 total – says 474 , and I´ve tracked it on Google Earth as marginally longer.

    • Thanks, Kamlesh & Vistet, it will really help me planning the trip. Basically I’m planning to Stay 1 night at Manali, start early from Manali and stay in Keylong for a night. Then start a early mornig Marathon to Leh which will like around 370 KMS( Right??) Is there anything else you wanna suggest / advice me. Thanks a ton.

      Warm Regards

      Gaurav Sethi

  10. Also can you recommend hotel at Keylong along with their phone numbers, Should we book hotel in advance right ? Generally travel agent is asking around 13k per person for Manali(1N) / Sarchu(Tents)(1N) / Leh(4N) / Kargil(1N)/ Srinagar(1N)/ Jammu (1N).. Is that ok or expensive ? Please advice.

    • That’s OK. Travelling by hired SUV? Mind well that last petrol pump is at Tandi few Km down the line from Keylong. Then next petrol pump is after 370 Kms.
      You want to it yourself or thro’ some travel agent?
      Rate depends on season. Confirm the rate by telephone. You can have it by googling. I suggest Chandrabhaga for Keylong. Wisdom holiday home for Leh. Rest not sure.

      • No, Im travelling from my own Innova. Yes, we me & my friend will be driving. I trust booking through travel agent will be better right ? Per person for whole trip is around 15000. Is that ok or expensive. Unfortunately Im not able to get any details for Keylong. Thanks a ton for all the help.

  11. I read all the communication regarding Manali – Leh route.Very interesting . I drove down last year and planning to go again this year in june 2010.I think not staying at Sarchu has been hyped too much .To the extent that one will exhaust himself driving directly to Leh as if running away from a monster. I also had a disturbing night and a little loss of appetite at Sarchu but the symptons wore off as we moved the next day. Basically one needs to take all the precautions/medication and leave the rest for the body to manage itself. I am thin and 53 years and am sure that the youngsters can take it even better . All this is worth the pleasure one derives in visiting this divine and beautiful region

  12. “I also had a disturbing night and a little loss of appetite at Sarchu but the symptons wore off as we moved the next day.”

    This is an argument that also could be done re safety rules in diving : there are a number of people who beat the rules with varying success , which doesn´t change the basics : regardless of the percentages all who get in serious problems have gone outside the safety guide lines , practically no one who stays within have serious problems.

    A lot of people will also say two different things at the same time ” I was not sick ” means a lot of the time ” I was ok with my symptoms ” . The later becomes a problem for others when you are driving. Sleep disturbance and loss of appetite is early stages in altitude sickness , and continuing higher from Sarchu becomes a bet that you will get down to Leh fast enough not to become (more) impaired as a driver . This works out a lot of the time , but far from always : I´ve been snagged near 5000 for many hours twice.

    I´m also a bit intrigued by the exhaustion argument , which comes up a lot : HRTC bus drivers makes the Keylong-Leh run daily with forty year old clunkers , so how can this become such a huge issue when you have the option to drive from Jispa or Darcha in a new vehicle ?

  13. Dear Vistet,

    I am travelling from US, and plan to rent taxis and take the Manali – Leh road in July this year. I am travelling with 2 adults (all 3 of us in late 30s) and 4 kids (ages: 5, 7, 8 and 9). I am spending 3 nights at Log Huts in Manali, followed by 2 nights in Keylong (trying IBEX at Jispa but it is currently sold out). Subsequently, we plan to do the marathon Keylong to Leh drive since it is not preferred to stay at Sarchu, Pang, erc. Do you recommend any tweaks especially from the point of view of travelling with kids? If there are any blockages at the high passes after Sarchu/Pang, is it possible to change the route and reach Tso Kar or Tso Moriri, or is it better to rough it out at the high passes. Would 3 nights at Manali and 2 nights at Keylong/Jispa prepare all of us including the kids for the high altitude drive?


    K Pande

  14. All,

    This was a very useful post to keep medical conditions in mind.

    We are a group of 10 travelling in a tempo traveller from manali to Leh. is it okay in a TT or do we need to go in a Tavera/innova kind of vehichles

  15. we are planning to come from srinagar to manali.i understand this is more gradual ascent.will it help since we are both 60+.we will be taking sufficient rest enroute pahalgam , alchi ,leh .i feel leh to sarchu is pretty long . will it be ok do this.

    • The plan is very sound . Age factor is an advantage : the 50+ group has lower risk for altitude sickness . Useless as a prediction for individuals , but there is certainly no reason to worry more over altitude effects just from being older.

      • dear sir thank you for the mail on leh .we are also planning to go to auli(joshimath) from rishikesh in our skoda laura car on first week oct 2014. can you give us any tips , whether skoda will be able to make it , precautions to be taken etc.

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