Sarchu and Jispa make for the two most convenient pit stops on your trip from Manali to Leh. There’s always a debate on where to stay and a lot of pros and cons are discussed for both. Logically speaking, Sarchu seems like the more rational choice. As this is the layoverthat divides the road trip up in two almost equal halves, distance wise. Also, Sarchu falls right on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Thus, it seems like a good point to halt the journey. However, I am here to tell you that there is a lot to consider apart from just distance division and help you learn from my mistakes!
About Sarchu and Jispa
With both places, there’s such stark differences. Let me give you a brief introduction to both Sarchu and Jispa firth.
Lying at a distance of 215 Kms from Leh and 255 Kms from Manali. Sarchu is at staggering heights of 14,300 Ft. In order to reach Sarchu from Manali, you’ll be crossing 2 – Rohtang-la (13,060 Ft) and Baralacha-la (16,500 Ft). However, further up ahead, towards Leh – you’ll be touching upon 3 passes. First come the twin passes of Nakee-la (15,547 Ft) and Lachung-la (16,616 Ft) and the mighty Tanglang-la (17,480 Ft). In terms of activities, there’s not a lot to do here. And, in all likelihood, you won’t even have enough energy to explore the stunning landscape. It is however, extremely photogenic and beautiful of a stop.
Situated 137 KMs from Manali, Jispa leaves a huge chunk of journey for your second day with 335 KMs to be covered. Jispa is a tiny village in itself, situated at an elevation of 10500 Ft. However, there is a lot of exploration you can do here. These include visiting the beautiful, albeit tiny, monastery as well as a museum and exploring trails. The village has a quintessentially Spiti feel to it and makes for a nice change from Manali.
Real Reasons to choose Jispa over Sarchu for your pit stop
1. Acute Mountain Sickness or high altitude pulmonary edema
As able-bodied fairly fit people, major chunk of people travelling by road to Leh, we tend to assume we are strong enough to deal with some mild discomforts that come from lack of oxygen. After all, if we can climb hills and do strenuous physical exercise – our lungs should be able to manage from a slight drop in environmental oxygen. Right? Well, that’s how my group thought when we embarked on this journey-of-a-lifetime!
So, let me shed some light on what AMS is and why it is such a big thing. Altitude is categorized as follows:
High (8000-12000 Ft)
Very High (12000-18000 Ft)
Extremely High (18000+ Ft)
One can develop symptoms of AMS typically above the heights of 10,000 Ft. Manali is situated at an elevation of 6,700 Ft above sea level. Also, keep in mind that most medical people advise you to climb 1000 ft. every 24 hours. Obviously, this is done to let your body properly acclimatize. Acclimatization is important for your body to get used to the drop in oxygen levels and adjust to the new conditions. By climbing gradually, you are helping your body take stock of the current situation and respond accordingly. The lack of oxygen is intense on the system. You can (and most probably will) feel symptoms including nausea, headaches etc.
Given that Sarchu is at far higher heights, you’re going to be troubled during your first night on the journey. In my experience, the symptoms in my group ranged from mild – feeling cold, having a headache, inability to sleep to extreme – bleeding nostrils, nausea, vomiting. If you don’t have access to proper medical staff around – you will not be able to control the urgency of the situation, if, God forbid, it gets more serious.
2. Distance, Distance, Distance.
This seems like an argument against Jispa for most people, I will shed some light from another point of view. Manali to Jispa is 137 KMs and easily takes 5+ hours (not including the traffic you’ll experience at Rohtang-la). Even if you leave at 8 from Manali and take only one lunch break on the way – you will not touch Jispa before 2:30 PM. Now, at this time, a lot of us think that Sarchu is another 78 KMs of driving (i.e. 2-3 hours of journey!). And, won’t it be better to cover as much distance as possible before you call it a night?
However, here’s the thing. You will, in all likelihood, reach Sarchu long after the sun sets. Because you will be in very isolated corners of the hills, you will be exhausted from 78 Kms of journey. The greenery and trees keep decreasing and the surroundings start representing Ladakh more and more as you come near Sarchu. Yes, Sarchu is in Himachal Pradesh for all purposes, however, the landscape is pretty much Ladakh.
Also, your body will go through roller coaster of dizzying heights of Baralacha-la. And, the descend to Sarchu won’t be very significant. Chances are, your body will be extremely tired because of this part of the journey.
However, if you crash at Jispa, yes, the distance would be much more for Day 2 – at 335 Kms – but, you will be well rested. Also, if you leave early enough, you can still manage to reach Leh by 5 max. As the driving time from Jispa to Leh is 9 hours and even if you add in another 3 hours of breaks along the way – you’ll make it to Leh in plenty of time for a cozy, comfy dinner. Also, after you cross the last pass on the journey, Tanglang-La, the roads are epic and you’ll be cruising in no time!!! At least half of your journey on this day will not be back-breaking (as opposed to the previous day!)
3. Things to Do
Jispa provides you with far more opportunities in terms of exploration. The views are similar to what you’d have in Manali – in terms of lush greenness and a beautiful river flowing – you should enjoy the bountifulness of the hills before exploring their harshness. Yes, the barrenness and the extreme conditions is what attracts us to Leh and the beauty it represents. However, it doesn’t hurt at all to delve into the giving nature of the hills as well. Also, given that it won’t take you an entire day to reach the place – you will have plenty of energy to go out and explore.
4. The passage from Jispa to Sarchu
The 78 KMs from Jispa to Sarchu include the stunning Suraj Tal and Deepak Tal, the beautiful Zing-zing bar (with cute “cafes” such as the Peace Café!) and the Baralacha-la, still my favorite pass on the entire journey. Given that you’ll be tired from the day and wanting to reach your destination of Sarchu before the sun sets, you won’t get to appreciate the beauty of these places. It is a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to get to explore this magical route and you should not be pushing yourself to go ahead without truly immersing yourself in the experience. A cup of hot tomato soup along with some Maggi is a must while crossing Zing-Zing bar and if you can’t sit and not worry about the time, well, what a waste!
Also, the views will be so much better and your photography would be on point in the morning for these places.
5. Alter your plans a bit and explore far more
Instead of staying at Manali before your trip begins, how about explore the lesser known, though gorgeous, . This was your 8-hour journey from Chandigarh is also evenly divided and you’re not tired. Also, further up ahead – on Day 2 of your journey from Jispa – how about not push for Leh as your end destination. Instead, stay an hour before at the cute town of Karu – and explore nearby areas of Hemis National Monastery along with the Thiksey monastery? This way, you get to explore so much more. And, it adds in a lot of colour and detailed to your trip to Leh, don’t you think?
Apart from AMS and lack of oxygen, it is important to take care of your health and not put yourself in a position of extreme temperature changes. If you’re travelling from the plains (and most likely in the summer months), chances are you’re probably coming from 35 degrees Celsius + climate. Suddenly, sleeping at 14,300 Ft with temperatures in the negative will undoubtedly take a toll on your system. If you are like me and your body is sensitive to sudden temperature jumps – you might develop a fever, cough, cold, lethargy. This isn’t good for the days up ahead. Especially if you’re on a motorcycle (and even if you’re in a car/bus) – you should make yourself as comfortable as humanly possible, because nature and surroundings will take a toll sooner or later. Be healthy and explore as much as you can!
7. Time constraints
We obviously want to spend as much time in Ladakh as possible. And this is the primary reason that most of us want to rush through the road trip to get to your destination. Let me throw in the most basic of clichés at you now – the details lie in the journey and not in the destination. Laugh all you want at this corniness, but, having been to Ladakh and done this journey – I can promise you with all my heart and soul and 90% of my memories are looking out the car window and being mesmerized that such beauty could exist.
Had I not done the Manali Leh route – I would have missed out on knowing More plains and what extreme Zen can be achieved, thanks to nature. Also, I would not have experienced the sheer shock of changing views, curve after curve that would shock my system. I would not have known the beauty of not knowing time exists and just living for the moment.
There is a level of ingenuity required to explore so much more. And, believe me, there is SO MUCH MORE to actually explore. There are some places that are relatively famous in the Leh-circle, however, just stop at any corner of this world and you’ll be engulfed by so much beauty and tranquility – it is incomparable.
Logically, yes, Sarchu lies at the halfway point from Manali to Leh. However, there are strong reasons for you to choose Jispa and make your journey more comfortable, more memorable and derive far more that by staying at Sarchu.