Our experience hitchhiking the Leh – Manali Highway in India, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, plus tips for travelers who want to do the same.
There’s nothing so surreal as hitchhiking through the soaring Indian Himalayas, driving over one of the highest mountain passes in the world, breathlessly admiring peaks dusted with summer snows… with the Backstreet Boys’ Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) blasting in the background.
Quit playin’ games with my heart,
I should’ve known from the start…
I can’t help chuckling, but the act is difficult. I’m breathing, but it feels like there’s no oxygen left. It’s almost a problem… except I’m too distracted by the view to be concerned about something as (currently) trivial as oxygen.
You know you got to stop (from my heart),
You’re tearing us apart (my heart),
Quit playin’ games with my heart…
Our ride growls as it pulls up to the top of the mountain pass. Tangles of rainbow prayer flags color the stark mountaintop, thousands of fluttering Om mani padme hums and other mantras blessing the pass and its transient visitors. Our drivers turn off the Backstreet Boys and step out to take selfies. Sebastiaan and I follow suit.
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out this article on Kinnaur Road in Himachal Pradesh!
We’re giddy with delight, partly because we’re 5,300 meters above sea level, but mostly because we’ve actually made it somewhere today.
Thinking of hitchhiking? Check out these tips on hitchhiking the world!
Escape from Leh
It all began when we decided to hitchhike the Leh – Manali highway over breakfast.
Our time in Ladakh was coming to a premature end. Days after our arrival, we learned we needed to Skype with a client. Problem is, connectivity in all of Jammu and Kashmir state is sluggish… at best. Our only option was to leave the state, and head to the nearest place with good internet. Or, at least, phone signal not throttled by the government. The closest option? The mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh.
Though I was excited for the incredible opportunity at our doorstep, I was bummed to leave Ladakh after less than a week. How to make the best of the situation?
“Hey Sebas… what if we hitchhike to to Manali instead of bussing it?” Sebastiaan scowled over his coffee.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Sebastiaan’s not a morning person. Suggesting sitting on the roadside for hours instead of simply buying a bus ticket was far too grand of a proposal for such an early hour. We continued to breakfast in silence. Several minutes later, as I sifted through my bowl of curd, he put down his fork decisively.
“Fuck it, let’s do it.”
By the next morning, 7:00 AM sharp, we’re sitting on the side of the Leh – Manali highway, bags packed and hands out.
Planning a holiday in Leh? Check out the Leh Ladakh tour packages page with all the information you need!
Hitchhiking the Leh – Manali highway
Hour one: rejection.
98% of the cars driving by are chartered taxis, and the other 2% are army trucks filled with leering dudes and locals in matchbox cars. Dozens of Ladakhi worker women line the roadside, competing with us for rides. Who are we to get in their way?
A red-robed monk inquires about what we’re doing. His face screws up in confusion when we explain we’re hoping to hitch a ride, rather than take one of the buses waiting several hundred meters down the road. Shrugging, he drifts away, leaving me to wonder why I’m determined to make things difficult.
Want to know more about Manali? Check out these 5 things to do in Manali!
Ride 1: Big bags and bum grabs
Finally, a rainbow cargo truck screeches to a stop before Sebastiaan’s outstretched thumb. A young driver with thick eyebrows leans over and opens the door, mimicking our thumbs-up sign. “This means pickup?” We nod, and he motions for us to hop in.
Packs in the back of the cabin, we settle on cushions around the driver. I’m next to him, and Sebastiaan takes the window seat.
It turns out the driver is from Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir. He asks us questions in Hindi and broken English. It seems like he’s going to Manali… but I’m not sure. I mention we’re aiming for Manali, answer his questions as best I can, and respond to everything else with apologetic smiles and shrugs. Eyeing my smile, his eyes begin to glitter.
“You come to Srinagar with me?” Wiggling eyebrows convey a bit too much meaning for my liking.
Um… no. We’re going to Manali.
“Yes… but you come to Srinagar with me?” I shake my head.
A few moments later, he pulls the truck over.
“I stop here.”
Exchanging looks of confusion, Sebastiaan and I begin unloading our bags from the truck. I hand Sebastiaan his bags, then reach over to grab my backpack. The truck driver assists, sliding it to me… and giving my bum a firm squeeze in the process. I angrily slap his hand away and try to scramble out of the truck as fast as possible. In the process, I gracefully trip over a pile of steel cables by the roadside, and end up on the dusty ground with scraped knees.
All in all, a good start to the day.
Ride 2: Safety in buses
A minibus driver en route to pick up some tourists kindly helps us save face minutes later.
Lounging amongst dozens of empty, cushy seats, watching epic monasteries and palaces whiz by, and sharing dried apricots amongst us, this is decidedly better than being groped first thing in the morning.
Ride 3: Eggs and noodles
The minibus driver deposits us at a cross roads lined with dhabas, trucker food stalls. We eye advertisements for hot chai and parathas—much more sustaining than the varied species of biscuits stashed in our packs—but decide against them in fear of missing out on a ride. (And needing midway pee stops.)
An hour passes with little success. A grizzly old man with package in hand stands meters away, eyeing us warily as he, too, tries to hitch a ride. He disappears and returns several times before giving up and wandering down the road on foot.
Massive trucks evict us from our roadside spot. Horns blast as they drive dangerously close. Eventually, we’re forced to evacuate, scrambling with our packs through the dust. Rule #4 of the road in India: always give way to trucks. (Rules #1, 2, and 3: never, ever hit a cow.)
With relocation comes luck: a white pickup pulls over. A smiling young Ladakhi man says they’re heading to Tso Moriri, a lake several hundred kilometers away. Packs go in the back, and we perch on top of boxes. Right after getting comfortable, I realize I’m sitting atop a carton of eggs, and quickly shift to the edge of the pickup bed. The best seat, between boxes of instant Maggi noodles, is already claimed by a tiny brown man in a purple vest. How he manages to contort his legs to fit inside the miniscule gap, I’ll never know.
Winds whip the pickup as we speed off through the high desert. In between bumps, Sebastiaan and I eagerly consult our navigational materials: a small plastic map of Ladakh and the Leh-Manali highway, the cheapest one we could find in the bookstore. According to the map, the turnoff to Tso Moriri lake is more than 100 kilometers away, after the first—and highest—mountain pass. We’re getting somewhere! Mountains, ahoy!
… but as you know, we’re Lost With Purpose. Navigation is not our forte.
The car stops 10 kilometers down the road at yet another dhaba-filled intersection. Turns out our high-quality map failed to note the (much more efficient) road to the lake from this intersection. Our bags are returned to the roadside dust, and confidence sinks once more.
Need more info on traveling to and from Leh by road? Check out this article on everything you need to know about traveling to Leh by road!
Ride 4: Decorative dirt
Sheltering in the shade of a dhaba, we return to waiting. Gone are we from the city’s outskirts; no cars pass. The road’s only occupants are hordes of motorbiking tourists, come from all over the world to admire the landscapes of Ladakh.
Two massive army vehicles stop near us. A serious mustachioed man in army fatigues watches over the rest of the passengers filing into the dhaba: slim young men in matching black and red jumpsuits. They look like a local football club.
I sidle up to the army man, asking where they’re headed, and if they’re a sports team. Scowling, he responds they’re army—the Ladakh Scouts—not sportsmen (oops). He mentions a name not featured on our shoddy map. I explain we’re trying to reach Manali. Scout Leader shakes his head, and returns to preside over his men like a fussy mother hen.
For half an hour we sit in wait. The flock finishes up their meal, and mother hen returns to our side for another chat. After learning where we’re from and what we’re doing, he offers to drive us to Rumtse, a little ways down the road. Partially out of boredom, partially so we could ride in army style, we agree to the short hop.
Squished into the front cabin of the massive truck with Leader and one of his chicks, we drive off down the highway at a whopping 30 km/h. A clear mountain stream runs alongside the road, lined by a towering rocky canyon. Scout Leader’s dour scowl is replaced with an excited grin as he chatters, pointing out Bihari workers, dusty street children, and my Indian looks. Drivers of passing cars salute Scout Leader as they go by. I can’t help but power trip as I look out at the road from the 3-meter high cabin. My hand strays to my camera, before I remember I should avoid snapping photos of anything army.
We pass a small concrete mound marked “Rumtse 5 KM”, when the first army truck pulls off the road, backing up into a large hill of rust red dirt. Scout Leader parks his truck on the side of the road. His brow furrows as he mentally assembles his next comment.
“Dirt is for decoration. We stop to get it.”
It sounds like a bizarre joke, but he’s already getting out of the car. One of the army-cum-sports teams is unloading camping gear from our truck, and the other truck’s team is unloading shovels. I guess he’s serious.
Shaking hands and thanking him for the ride, we retreat to a sliver of shade before a small mud hut, crouching carefully to avoid piles of beady goat droppings. Time to wait for cars that will never come.
Scout Leader watches us from down the road for a few minutes, before stalking over.
“I will help you find a car. Just wait.”
His gesture is appreciated, but seemingly pointless on the empty road.
… or is it? Mere seconds after his announcement, a lone white pickup hurtles down the road. Scout Leader moves to the road’s edge, imperiously raising his hand and ordering them to stop. Army magic is strong; the pickup screeches to a stop. The drivers are reluctant to let us in, but Scout Leader adopts an officious tone of voice, and next thing we know, we’re driving down the Leh – Manali highway once more.
Ride 5: Ladakhstreet Boys and the Malaysian biker gang
The pickup truck is following a group of Malaysian men bike touring through Ladakh. A wiry Himachali boy is at the wheel, his co-captain a boy from Delhi generally preoccupied with primping his gelled hair.
An hour down the road, they spot their biker gang at a roadside chai stall and stop. The Malaysian men are wholly unconcerned about random backpackers climbing out of their truck, and immediately invite us to sit. We’re bombarded with hearty laughter, tea, dried dates, tales of epic bike trips (Malaysia to Saudi for the Hajj, anyone?), and a million invitations to their hometown, Ipoh. Not for the last time, we’re reminded how insanely hospitable everyone-not-from-Europe can be.
Chai cups empty and need for snacks sated, we pile back into the car. Trundling along to the Backstreet Boys and other quality compositions, we cross over Taglang La, the mountain pass, and down into another valley. “Down” is perhaps misleading; the valley is still more than 4,500 meters above sea level.
The co-captains drop us at a tent camp at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. Seeing me eye the empty highway, the Himachali boy assures me they’ll be back “sometime around 11… or 1” tomorrow, in case we’re still stranded the next day.
We aren’t sure whether or not to continue, so we do as usual: decide to decide later, after chai and food. Frigid winds snarl our hair as we huddle over tea. Flying plastic chairs and clouds of dust eventually drive us into the shelter of the tent to ponder our options over instant noodles.
Ride 6: Uttar Pradesh princes
Two hours later, we’re still in the same camp. Our lungs have filled with dust, our skins protest the strong sun, watching Indians taking roadside selfies is no longer entertaining (much), and all passing cars are packed.
Finally, two white SUVs crest a nearby hill. We jump to attention, hands out faster than you can say “Ladakh”. To our amazement, both pull over, and both have space.
They’re manned by a group of men from Uttar Pradesh state, returning from a 10-day boys’ trip into Jammu and Kashmir. Fans of fast driving, off-road “shortcuts”, and bumps at high speeds, our backs soon bemoan our choice, but we are getting somewhere, and the men are friendly.
After an hour in the car, Sebastiaan and I decide we’re in the company of drug lords. All of the men are clearly very affluent, and all are evasive about work when asked.
“I work in transportation.”
What kind of transportation?
There’s one exception: a politician’s son, soon to be a politician himself. His father is an MLA in Uttar Pradesh for India’s majority BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)… and a corrupt one at that. In India, where corruption is king, this boy is practically a prince.
He doesn’t try to hide it. Quite the opposite: he’s positively exuberant when speaking about his wealth, despite middling English.
“At home, I have 80 car parking space!”
80 cars? What?! How many cars do you have?
“15 cars. Two for sister. Two for mother. Four for me. Four for my father. More for staff. I also have four horses and four cows. And deer.”
Why do you need so many cars?
“For campaigning,” he winks. His friend leans over to look back at us from the front seat.
“His father is a very corrupt politician.” I look back at the political prince.
Will you be a corrupt politician, too?
“Oh yes,” he chortles, “very corrupt.” At least he’s honest. Sort of.
As we bounce down the increasingly terrible road at breakneck speeds, the prince tells me of his upcoming holiday in Switzerland.
Switzerland is very expensive.
“I will be fine. I have lots of black money.”
The other men blast Punjabi dance hits to expand our cultural horizons. One shows us his photos of their time in Kashmir, so we know what we’ve missed. I scroll through (literally) hundreds of selfies, trying to admire slivers of Kashmiri greenery in the background while ignoring unflattering views up his nostrils. Suppressing giggles is not easy.
They drive us late into the night, stopping at a motel for a rest, then continuing early the next morning. To our great amazement, we make it to Manali by mid-afternoon… days before we expected to arrive.
We attempt to give some money for gas at the final station stop, to the great horror of the prince.
“No, no, no! You are our friends! Friends do not pay!” He cackles, adding, “Remember, I have the black money. I do not need yours.”
Our adieus to the prince and his entourage are cut short. In the middle of the night, one of their friends shot another friend while squabbling over “money matters”, and so they must rush home. My heart goes out to their defeated faces, but a niggling voice in my mind points out how this supports our drug lord theory.
The men say a quick, preoccupied goodbye before leaving us on the roadside. Instantly, rickshaw wallahs and hotel hawkers take their place.
“Hello sir hello. You need hotel?”
“Very good cheap price hotel.”
Six rides, 29 hours, tons of dust, and much whiplash later, we’ve made it to Manali.
Tips for hitchhiking the Leh – Manali highway
Hitchhiking the Leh – Manali highway is very doable, but must be done with caution. The highway is one of the highest roads in the world, and poor planning can lead to altitude sickness (AMS). Unattended AMS can have severe repercussions, death being one of them.
Times, distance, and passes
Leh to Manali is 490 km (304 mi), the average elevation on the highway being 4,000 m (13,123 ft). The road isn’t open all year round due to snow. Generally, it opens between May and June, and closes mid-October.
The highway traverses three major mountain passes. Going from Leh to Manali, they are
- Tanglang La – 5,328 m (17,480 ft)
- Baralacha La– 5,030 m (16,500 ft)
- Rohtang – 3,980 m (13,060 ft)
Choosing a direction
Hitchhiking from Leh to Manali is safer than the opposite direction. Coming from Leh, you’re already acclimatized to the high altitude, and should be fine wherever you end up for the evening. Just don’t stop in the middle of the mountains.
Manali to Leh is much more taxing on your body due to the altitude increase, and you should consider taking a bus in this direction. If you’re stubborn, however, we did see far more cargo trucks heading in this direction. According to Footloose Dev, Indian Oil trucks are your best bet for hitching rides in Ladakh.
If you do decide to go from Manali to Leh, please be careful with the altitude, and make sure you can make it to a safe altitude before calling it quits for the day. See our health tips for more details.
- Take the anti-AMS drug Diamox the day before you leave. You can find it in any pharmacy in Leh or Manali. A strip of 15 pills is 50 Rs.
- Note: If you’re allergic to sulfa drugs like me, do not take Diamox.
- Drink at least 4 L of water per day. Never fear, all the rest stops sell bottles of water.
- Dried apricots are said to help with altitude sickness. In Leh, you can find men selling different kinds of dried apricots at the end of the main market street.
- Go lower if you’re feeling dizzy, nauseous, or have headaches. AMS symptoms should be taken seriously. You can make up for lost time another day.
For more information and tips on altitude sickness in Ladakh, see this post.
Where to stop?
There are lots of villages towards the beginning and end of the highway. In between, there are a decent number of tent camps with beds and cheap, basic food options.
Your biggest concern should be ending up at a manageable altitude for you. Always aim to sleep lower than the highest point you’ve reached during the day. Meaning, don’t camp atop a mountain pass, badass as it sounds! Some options are:
- Closer to Leh
- Rumtse – 4,100 m (13,450 ft)
- Upshi – 3,608 m (11,840 ft)
- Closer to Manali:
- Darcha – 3,360 m (11,000 ft)
- Jispa – 3,200 m (10,500 ft)
- Keylong – 3,080 m (10,100 ft)
- This post from Devil on Wheels has everything you need to know about any kind of adventure down the Leh – Manali highway.
- This guide about solo female travel in Himachal has some useful tips for the ladies wanting to do this.