Route: Chandigarh to Leh (via Manali)
Distance: Approx 795 kms
Travel Time: 22 hrs
I bought a calendar on Ladakh for my work desk, hoping that the law of attraction would come into play and I would find myself there next summer. One year later, there I was, in the lap of heavenly bliss and wonder. The journey there was nothing short of extraordinary.
After all these years of travel, the highway has certainly become one of my favourite parts of a journey. The Indian Highway is a world of its own. There is so much going on. From the car full of overenthusiastic guys speeding away, blasting music like they own the road to the overstuffed innova's (SUVs) carrying two entire family generations for a holiday, their luggage tied on top, dancing to the tune of every pothole, daring bikers and finally, the cosy newly weds off on their honeymoon. Of course, there's the occasional lone traveler, deluxe/ Volvo buses and the king of Indian roads – our very own mustached trucks!
Me and a friend took one of the frequent Volvo buses at night from Chandigarh to Manali. We slept for most of the journey, waking up only for an early morning loo/ tea break at a dhaba. If you're traveling in North India, it is hard to miss the frequent road side dhabas. You can smell chai, dal makhani and tandoori rotis from a distance. Of course, half asleep, at 5 am, one could only smell the masala chai and hear the sound of the gushing Beas river. Back on the bus, I took the window seat to enjoy the mesmerizing view of dawn breaking through the mighty Himalayas. The journey from Kullu to Manali is breathtaking, with fruit orchards full of litchis, apples and peaches on one side and the flowing river on the other side.
8 hours and 305 kms later, we had arrived in Manali. This is where we were breaking our journey on the way to Leh. We enquired around to get the best rates for a shared minibus from Manali to Leh and booked it, for later that night. As we had the whole day in Manali, we decided to rest for a bit and do some sightseeing. We headed to Old Manali and unwinded at a river side cafe there. Brushed our teeth, freshened up and started the trip on a healthy note with juice and a fresh fruit bowl. The cafe owner was very friendly and offered us some local rice brew. One sip was enough to give me a giddy feeling and funnily enough, made me very contemplative. We lazed around there for some time and later with the help of some locals, found cheap accommodation for the night.
It was a quaint litlle guest house called Apple View, on top of a hill with its own orchard and a panoramic view of the deodar covered mountains. We were the only Indians here – only Indian backpacking girls to be particular. With our rucksacks in tow, we made our way up to the large, airy room with a view on the first floor. After a power nap, we headed to La Plage – a French cuisine restaurant amidst apple orchards. We decided to indulge ourselves here, and kicked back with beers and delicious food. My slow cooked lamb with red wine jus was to die for! No more extravagance after this, we decided. After all, it was a thoroughly budgeted trip.
We were so happy that the weather was clear, after all the recent, unexpected pre monsoon showers, due to which our travel plans were almost shelved. It was a gorgeous, sunny day perfect for our onward journey to Leh. After slogging away at the desk job for what it seemed like an eternity, this was bliss. I felt so free, uninhibited and jolly.
A couple of hours later, however, it started to rain unexpectedly. We were really worried about landslides en route which would leads to delays or worse – abandoning our travel plans. There are only 2 routes to Leh – one via Manali and the other one via Srinagar. With heavy rain, there is a high chance of the national highway getting blocked, and help is hard to come by.
Thankfully, the rain didn't last long. We called it a night, pretty early as we had to wake up in a few hours for the next leg of the journey. The part we were most excited about!
The alarm woke us up in time for the mini van. Groggy eyed, we strapped on our rucksacks, turned on our flashlights and made our way down to the vehicle. It was chilly, pitch dark and drizzling.
We got the middle seats in the 12 person minivan – a window and an aisle seat. Our fellow travellers were mostly Europeans, both of us and another Indian guy were minorities. There was a french girl sitting next to me and she was carrying a puppy rescued from an animal rehabilitation centre in Delhi, all the way to Leh! Slowly, we started to make our way out of Manali. You couldn't see much outside through the foggy window. About 20 minutes into the journey, the driver picked up a local Ladakhi family of 4, to be seated on two seats right at the back of the vehicle. Soon enough, their young children started crying because of the extra bumpy ride and claustrophobia that they were being subjected to. Somebody was nice enough to exchange their passenger seat for the mother and her two children. Those children pretty much took turns throwing up for the rest of the arduous 18 hour journey.
Soon enough, we were making our way to one of the first passes en route – Rohtang La (13,050 ft). There were massive craters (potholes won't suffice) on the road – or lack thereof, leading to the pass. As the driver would try to avoid these, we would often end up being dangerously close to the edge, missing the sheer drop only by a few inches. Obviously, I couldn't sleep during this time and had my heart in my mouth. It was freezing outside, the snow shining in the moonlight. The puppy let out a whimper because of the cold and its owner wrapped him up in a shawl. I was nicely layered up and had my Warwick hoodie on, which kept me warm. Although I was wearing two pairs of thick socks, my feet were still cold.
An hour later, dawn started to break. You could see orangish red rays of light on the horizon, through the snow clad misty mountains. It was definitely one of the most beautiful mornings I had ever experienced. We were passing through alpine meadows, streamlets on the road and flock of sheep out for an early morning graze. My attention was quickly diverted as the puppy threw up on its owner's pants. I passed her some tissues to clean up and asked the driver to stop at the nearest toilet. We stopped in Keylong. It was freezing outside, I quickly used the facilities, took some pictures and then joined my friend, Mallika in a tiny dhaba (the size of a toilet) for a cup of tea. I stood next to the stove to warm myself up and we got talking to our fellow travelers, a couple from England.
Back on the minivan, although I was very sleepy,I couldn't shut my eyes. The landscape was changing at every turn. Sometimes you could see barren mountains, sometimes rocky and sometimes green. The snow clad mountains in the distance beckoned us. Soon, we were at ZingZingBar – our next stop for breakfast. I got off the minivan and took in the cool, crisp air. There was a lot of snow around and no toilets, so we had to go out in the open. After another cup of tea, omelette and toast we were on our way again.
A couple of turns later, an azure lake appeared, nestled amongst snow clad mountains – their reflection shone perfectly in the water. Suraj Tal, the second highest lake in India and 21st highest in the world is certainly worth a visit. That image has since stayed with me, it reminded me of the pristine, clearwater lakes of New Zealand I had visited a decade ago. I had travelled a lot thereafter, and had never seen a sight so pretty. It got me thinking about how everyone is eager to go abroad on exotic holidays, little realising the beauty our own country has to offer. Luckily, I have had many opportunities to travel within India in the last two years and would encourage people to do the same.
We passed another high altitude pass, Bara – lacha La (16,040 ft). You could see the colourful prayer flags fluttering in the snow. The picture perfect valley we were passing through was absolutely breathtaking. There were snow covered mountainous ranges on both sides, with a stream flowing through green grass fields down below. There were barely any clouds in the deep blue sky, a colour you never see in the city skyline, and the morning sun was shining bright right on me. I put on my shades, covered my face with the hoodie and plugged in my headphones. Aah, Eddie Vedder, perfect!
Soon enough, we had reached Sarchu, a military base camp and check post. We were so excited as we were officially in Ladakh territory. It was a steady climb through a beautiful stark landscape. About half an hour later, my head started to hurt. I had read up on Altitude Sickness and how to avoid it by having Diamox, but never thought I would need it. My headache became worse and I continued to ignore it thinking it would go away.
It was amazing to see how after starting at the bottom of the valley, we had soon reached the same height as the snow clad mountains. It seemed like we were on top of the world – literally and figuratively speaking. We passed another high altitude pass, Lungalacha La (16,600 ft) where lots of tourists were busy taking pictures. Our grumpy driver refused to stop. My head was pounding at this time. I finally decided to pop a pill, once the others did as well. I think it was only because of the sheer beauty around that I had managed to bear the headache for more than two hours.
As the others were waking up from their long naps, I decided to finally get some shut eye. By this time, I had removed most of my layers as it was really warm. You could tell that you were in a desert by all the dust and fumes coming in through the window. It was a downhill drive now, through reddish brown sandy mountains to Pang – the world's highest army transit camp at 15,640 ft. I slept through most of the journey and didn't feel like stepping off the vehicle when we stopped there for lunch. My head was still hurting and I could feel the long journey getting to me.
There were tented eating joints, some even providing accommodation on either side of the road. This is where I saw the most amount of people in the last few hours. Food options were limited to eggs, bread, maggi, dal and rotis. I opted for maggi – being a safe option. I shared a bit of dal and rotis with the others, the rotis were very different from what I was used to. They tasted like roomali rotis, the size of a normal roti. In fact, when we ordered north Indian food a couple of times, it was completely different to what we had expected or normally ate. I am reminded of the time when we ordered chicken curry at our guest house in Nubra Valley – famous for its sand dunes and Genghis Khan's double humped camels. First of all, they took more than an hour to prepare it. We were absolutely famished by the time our food arrived. When we tried to bite into the chicken it was so tough, that we just had the curry instead.
So, we mostly stuck to Italian, Continental and other cuisines wherever possible. Leh offers some of the most delicious food, by the way. I think I am getting side tracked by food (as usual) so let's go back to the rest of my journey.
The driver signalled towards us to get into the mini van as the rest of the passengers were waiting. I quickly went to the nearest hand pump and washed my face with icy cold water. It felt good and made my headache subsequently disappear. Everyone in the minivan was awake now, and the atmosphere inside was lively. We were exchanging travel stories with others and advising them on places to visit in India. The driver put on a Hindi music CD and soon the conversation turned to Bollywood, and strangely enough Sunny Leone! It was funny to see our fellow traveller, an English guy sing Hookah Bar, a popular hindi song and we all had a good laugh.
We were passing through a vast plateau now called Moore's plains, surrounded by sandy hills on both sides and just the open stretch of road ahead of us. About an hour later, we had reached the world's second highest motorable pass, Taglang La (17,480 ft). The change in temperature was palpable. We heard that there had been a huge snowstorm just a couple of days ago and the road had been blocked. Thankfully, the weather gods were on our side. Again, our driver didn't stop besides repeated requests and seemed to be in a tearing hurry. We began our final descent to Indus Valley and the driver swerved through tight corners to reach our final destination before sundown.
We made our last stop at Upshi village, on the shores of the Indus river, while the driver got the necessary checks done. The flowing river had an unusual grey colour that glistened in the setting sun. We had our evening tea and fed biscuits to the puppy travelling with us. Hats off to little guy for undertaking such a difficult journey!
Past Upshi, the way was fairly flat and smooth. You could see a lot of greenery now, lots of trees, cultivated pieces of land and white stupas dotted around the beautiful stark landscape. You could feel the heavy army presence here as we passed many cantonment areas and base camps. I don't think I have ever felt more proud or thankful to the Indian Army for bearing such treacherous living conditions on a daily basis just to keep us safe.
As the setting sun disappeared from the evening sky, we had reached Leh. And the journey had only just begun 🙂