Himalayan Journeys: Shimla to Manali via Kaza
This is a great route with beautiful stark landscapes, no roads and a wonderfully challenging ride/drive. We last rode this route in July 2012 and this account is based on the condition of the roads at that time though a lot could have changed in a year.
Leg 1: Shimla to Rampur
This short 128km ride is actually a climb down to the riverside city of Rampur. As you head out of the crowded city of Shimla the roads wind gracefully around the hills. Once out of Shimla, though, the concrete jungle that adorns the mountainsides soon disappears and is replaced with lush green forests as the road winds down to Theog and Narkanda. At Kingal, the road meets the Sutlej and then follows its banks as you slowly make your way further north towards Rampur. The road was surprisingly well laid tarmac when we made the trip last year so much so that you could easily believe them to be nice country roads but the numerous sections without any guard rail and a mile long drop off is a stark reminder that these roads require utmost respect. There is also the constant danger around every corner of coming across anything from fallen rocks to complete landslides. The good roads also means other vehicles traveling faster than they should be and speeding trucks and jeeps are quite common, so always be alert.
Leg 2: Rampur to Nako
The ride from Rampur to Nako is roughly 180km, but it can take up to a full day of riding as the smooth tarmac roads that you enjoyed yesterday gives way to dusty dirt roads. The route follows the Sutlej and climbs up slowly, and by the time you reach Reckong Peo you've already been dirt tracking for a good 20 kilometres. The roads here are prone to landslides and BRO (Border Road Organisation) can be seen working overtime clearing the leftovers.
You are now in the Spiti Valley region, and Reckong Peo onwards the landscape changes starkly with little vegetation and steep rocky mountains towering up on both sides. The roads are very narrow in some sections here, and looking up the road for on coming traffic will help you avoid getting taken by surprise on a blind hairpin.
Leg 3: Nako to Kaza
The day's drive is filled with narrow roads, treacherous drop offs into nothingness and broken surfaces
This leg of your journey is just 110km but much like the road to Nako. The day's drive is filled with narrow roads, treacherous drop offs into nothingness and broken surfaces. The uphill sections are very steep and extreme care should be taken while negotiating the curves and hairpin bends. There is very little to no traffic, but this is only a little consolation as it also means that any break down would mean a night out under the stars. It would be best to take on this leg of the journey with at least two vehicles, and if you must go it alone, ensure that your mechanical knowledge is sound and your tools and spares are plentiful.
Leg 4: Kaza to Manali
After tanking up at the last petrol pump for the next 200km, you head northwest from Kaza towards the Kanzum La pass. The roads, or the lack of them, continue in pretty much the same fashion as the previous leg with the same feeling of remoteness. The hills are all but devoid of any vegetation and as you start climbing you get closer and closer to the snow capped peaks. Kunzum La lies at 14,931ft above sea level and is usually closed till mid-June each year. Once you're over the top there is a short decent into the Lahaul Valley. After coming down the hillside for a few kilometres the road turns left and upwards and heads up again to the 13,050ft Rothang La. Once over the pass, civilisation slaps you in the face as the pass is usually crowded with tourists from Manali. The route down to Manali is also famous for its hour long traffic jams and landslides. What is a pleasant surprise though is the complete change in scenery, and once you go over the pass you at once amongst the clouds and lush green forests.