June 28, 2019

The Manali-Leh magic

It is a route that has been done to death and yet, it refuses to die. Such is the lure of adventure on the road that connects Manali in snowy Himachal to mystical Leh

WORDS SHOURYA JAIN

NO MATTER HOW THIS STORY starts, it is going to sound cliché. Changed my life; Gave me a whole new perspective; Made me a better version of myself and so on. So let’s just keep it simple and say: I went to Ladakh. And only the people who have been to Ladakh would know how impactful this sentence is and how much it doesn’t need any exaggeration. Consider it a disclaimer, but if you’re not going to Ladakh via road then you’re not doing it right. The arduous passes, extreme weather conditions, treacherous roads and extreme weather conditions again, is what you have to go through to discover this beautiful land of, but wait let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

My family and I began our journey from far end of south Rajasthan in the scorching heat of early June, hoping to find some respite in the coming days of our trip. Driving on spectacular highways stretching for kilometres, endless conversations on Indian politics, diverse geographies and bickering over each other’s choice of music is what our road trips are made of. We reached Manali the following day and checked into our usual, far out from the city, hotel on the road to the remote Solang Valley. Right behind our hotel were snow clad mountains with the season’s fresh fall and a stream of pure glacial water.

Contrary to expectations, the weather was surprisingly pleasant the next day while we waited to get our route permit. Given how quick, or not, getting a route permit could be, we decided to have a laid back day before the start of the much anticipated journey. Now unlike a lot of people we chose a peculiar time to start our journey to avoid traffic congestion at the Gulaba checkpost of Rohtang Pass. So midnight it was! Not a soul to be seen, except a few trucks every now and then and an under-construction road. Once we crossed the Gulaba check-post, traces of snow and days old ice began to show up on the side of the roads.

Like a child, I pressed my head against the car window and peered out to catch a glimpse of snow on the side hills, as if I wasn’t going to get to see any over the coming days. Completely unaware of the macabre significance of the pass’ name, for Rohtang La means pass of death. That’s how treacherous and unpredictable this pass is. Prone to frequent landslides and avalanches, even though the tourist infested slopes might indicate otherwise.

We crossed the pass a little after four in the morning and headed towards Keylong via Tandi, which has the last petrol pump until you reach Leh over 350km away. So make sure you fill up your tanks before heading forward. Keylong is a part of Spiti district and the area around this mountain town is dotted with small villages, pretty flowers and simple hill folk who smile and laugh a lot more than we do back in the plains. It’s difficult not to wonder if somewhere we, who think we live in more developed places with access to a lot more, have lost our ability to be content with our lot in life. Looking at the small unwinding roads leading into every changing scenery, I was like a curious child again, with no traces of fatigue because I just didn’t want to miss out on any part of the trip.

A quick pitstop for piping hot tea, plates of yummy snacks and of course the mandatory Insta snaps later, we were on our way again. Our eyes set firmly on Pang where we would hole up for the night in flimsy cloth tents while temperatures outside would dip till it could freeze an adult. That’s the thing about this route that draws the intrepid traveller again, and again, and yet again. Adventure here is in its purest form. You must be prepared to brave it or not be here at all. Glamping simply cannot withstand Ladakh, a land so barren that on a moonlit night you might imagine you’re on Luna herself.

En route, is the fearsome Baralacha La. Considered among the deadliest of passes, oxygen levels here can dip to a bare minimum. You’ll often find locals telling you not to run or get too excited when you step out of your car. You need to save your breath here, literally, taking small steps. With walls of snow on either side of the road, Baralacha could well be a painting. Except, it isn’t and the dangers are all too real.

From Baralacha one descends to the tent village of Sarchu. It could have been just another place where you’d have a ramshackle dhaba constructed of unhewn stones and a spread of tarpaulin, but the flat plains on either side of the lone road that cuts through the landscape is perfect ground for breaking camp. Hence, a skyline of furiously flapping tents.

Leaving Sarchu behind we ploughed steadily on towards the next spectacular adventure, the 21 hairpin bends of Gata. A magnificent visual when seen from the top, this part of the road is aptly named Gata Loop. But there is always a twist in every Ladakhi tale, mostly strange and sometimes ghastly. Local lore says that the Loop is haunted by the ghost of a truck driver who died in an accident. In order to pacify this spiritually stunted driver, the locals have set up a temple where all passersby leave a bottle or two of water. Apparently, help never reached the injured soul, and his soul took flight after days of thirst and starvation. You can even spot a real human skull in the temple. Ghastly and yet strangely fascinating. One of those innumerable astonishing things you inevitably encounter on the high road to Leh.

By the time we reached the top of the Gata Loop light snowfall had begun. We stopped at a small tea stall. Ladakhi people and their food is quite simple with minimal spices. We had some delicious lentil soup and maggi, a staple in these parts, and rested a bit before carrying on. Acclimatisation to the weather can be a little painstaking, so you need to stay hydrated at all times and take stops at proper intervals.

The Gata Loop gave way to Nakee La, one of the many passes you must scale to get to Leh. Here we experienced our first snowstorm. It was fierce and visibility plummeted, sometimes down to zero. The going got slower, and more arduous. But that too is part of the magic of Ladakh. One moment the sun is shining with benevolent grace and the very next the wind gods and the snow want to leave no trace of your existence on this lunar landscape.

The gullies and gorges formed due to course of water over time have turned the hills to look as if they’re remains of a large but fallen kingdom and makes your mind wander into writing your own fiction. Ladakh invokes your inner creativity by showing you a world literally beyond your imagination. Moving at a glacial pace we crossed, first the Nakee La and then Lachulung La, the next pass.

Snow covered side of the road; This page anti-clockwise: Milestone and prayer flags on the way to Lachulung La; Stupas on the way to Leh; Indus river; Gata Loop

Pang came and went sometime in the afternoon. Perhaps around half past one. Or maybe it was two. You lose all measure of time here. Everything is just too mesmerising to bother about the two moving hands that we have become slaves to in our ordinary lives. But here, nothing seemed ordinary. I swear I could make out ruined castles and ancient temples in the mountain behind the campsite.

About 70km from Pang was the final pass before the descent to Leh would begin. After Pang I finally took over the driver’s seat until we reached Taglang La, where Lady Luck finally decided to call it a day. A sudden and fierce snow storm broke up our progress completely and we simply couldn’t go on. Even the diesel in our Renault Duster was dangerously close to freezing. We should have been worried to death but there I was, still dreaming. For such is the magic of these mountains. This could be snowy Narnia, under the spell of the wicked Snow Queen. Reality however finally broke through our reverie, forcing us to turn back towards Pang. Leh would have to wait for another night.

Here, where oxygen levels drop like a lead brick, it is advisable to eat a light dinner and hit the sack as fast as possible. Which is exactly what we did. The following morning, emerging out of our tents, the Sun was back to its shining benevolence and no trace of the snow storm remained. Our energies renewed we got back on the road and cut through this incredible landscape, past the 40km of the disorienting More Plain, straight for the welcoming gates of Leh. (In the next part, we will explore Leh and the now famous Pangong Tso)

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