Monday, September 21, 2009

To Leh, From Manali

In fact, this write-up, the most interesting part of the entire trip, should have been the first among the Leh travelogues, but somehow it became the last in series. As per our earlier plans, sadly, we couldn't drive motorcycle from Manali to Leh for two reasons - wet weather and lack of any bikers group starting from Manali on that day. We finally settled down for a deal, if not the best, the next best thing, maybe - travel in Sumo spanning two days, exclusively for two of us costing 6 grand.

As aforementioned, the day we set out to Leh was wet, cold and gloomy. Sharp at 6 in the morning, our driver bearing a tongue-twister name Yeshti Tseten called me on my mobile and asked as if we were ready, within next five minutes we were loading our bags to the trunk and cruising out of Manali city. On the outskirts of Manali, we crossed Beas river flowing in dark valley, reminding me the wicked darkness of cover art of Norwegian black metal bands. The sun was perfectly and impenetrably veiled by layers of thick dense dark clouds and the mountains were obscured by thin smoky apparition of clouds. The landscape mainly consisted of pine forest clad mountains with snow at their summits.

The roads were pretty inhospitable - potholes, loose stones, slurry ponds, ripped off tarmac, wet and winding up all the way. At Murri (read muddy), 16km before Rohtang la pass we stopped for breakfast, fresh cold winds from the mountains struck me as I stepped out of car, it was shivering cold and we ran into the restaurant. I got warmth from the stove on which a tea kettle was kept, we ordered alu parathas and tea. Parathas, hot from tandoor, coated with butter, tasted very delicious with pickle and the hot tea gave me the much wanted warmth and energy.

The next 16 kilometers was a ruthless ascent on a very inhospitable road, worsened by rains. We found a carcass of, probably, a cattle torn into pieces by a pack of healthy looking dogs. Our driver told us that dogs in that region were the wildest and wickedest. Due to lack of food, he said, they could attack a person and devour him instantly. All along one can see BRO (Border Roads Organization) notices, "Two lane construction in progress, sorry for the inconvenience". At Rohtang la (3980m), it was extremely cold and the visibility was extremely low. We could see only few bright coloured tents of the BRO labourer, obscured by mist. The driver pointed to a dome and told us that it was the birthplace of Beas river. From Rohtang la pass, it was all descent for quite sometime. The road at Rohtang la pass is a seasonal one, it officially closes down due to heavy snowing from 15th of September to sometime till April or May.

Despite sickening rains and biting cold, we happened to see a bunch of bikers, all clad in their rain-coats and riding bullets, reaching the highway from Spiti valley side. The driver guessed that they were coming from Chandra-Tal lake in Spiti valley, it was inspiring to see them but still happy to be warm and snug inside the car. We passed along a muddy violent river with gigantic mountains obscured by clouds on both sides, a million little streams were joining the river and 'Pagal nala' was one of them, which we had to cross. We passed small villages, stopping wherever the photographer in me said "click", few things I remember I clicked were a muddy waterfall and a group of girls attired in their traditional wear.

Just before reaching Tandi, where we wanted to have a tea break, mother nature wanted us to take a break. There was a landslide, to coin a more precise term a scree-slide, rain water being the impetus. Loads of stone and slurry had blocked the road ad we were the first ones to encounter that, so we had to wait. From the other side came two lorries and a bus, the first of the lorries rapidly accelerated and crossed the screes as though there was nothing, the second one got struck and had to be towed by the first one. Those lorries did a lot good to the other vehicles waiting to cross the landslide, they flattened the scree heap and we crossed and continued to Tandi. At Tandi, we stopped at a very small, dark tea-stall crowded by workers gulping country liquor. After making us wait for 10 minutes, the guy at the tea-stall served us sweet, hot milk tea, not the best I've ever had, but due to extreme cold it tasted heavenly.

A little ahead of Tandi, while the road ascends to Keylang your mobile camps on to Airtel network. We stopped for a while and made all the calls we had to and continued to Keylang. People doing the Leh-Manali drive spanning for three days, stay at Keylang, the driver told us. On the outskirts of Keylang, we saw scattered stones of different sizes on the road and the driver enlightened us that those were the shooting stones, which keep pelt down from the mountains. Later we came across a group whose car was dented by these pelting stones, we were lucky to pass unscathed. We reached Jispa which has a luxury hotel, Hotel Ibex and the driver said some people get acclimatize in Jispa for the yet to come, higher altitudes.

We stopped at Darcha for lunch and unfortunately and unexpectedly, that happened to be unusually long halt. The cops had stopped all the movements towards Leh saying that the highway was blocked at Baralacha la due to heavy snow and they had had casualties the previous year. Darcha has a check-post around which there are a couple of dhabas and we settled down in the very first one for lunch. We had thukpas, the hot and yummy noodle soup, Pradeep had the vegetarian one and myself the mutton one, followed by creamy delicious tea. I lied down for a while under a thick sheet, I was very cold and that made me warm and cosy. We happened to meet a bikers team from Bangalore, who were drenched to their bones and their teeth chattering.

Darcha gave me a good opportunity to do photography of portrait and street genres. In dhaba where we halted, there was this very cute girl Manisha who was more than happy to pose for me. Across the bridge were some locals, some of them posed for me, some of them hesitated but I was evil enough to shoot them with the 70-200 lens. Darcha was beautiful with cloud covered mountains all around, river in the valley, an army constructed bridge, shepherds on the mountains, locals busy in their activities - like a scenery set for making a movie or something.

The cops at the check-post finally let us go at about 5 in the evening. The driver kept cursing the cops all the way till Baralacha la, for having stopped us for no real reason. He said it's a ploy between the dhaba owners and the cops, to prolong the stoppage of passers-by for making more money. We reached Baralacha la at twilight, there was a light snowfall and mountains were completely snow capped. We stopped at Sooraj taal lake for photographing and continued ahead without any breaks all the way till Sarchu.

It was dark, windy and bone-chilling cold when we reached Sarchu. Sarchu has about three camp sites where in we can rent out tents, tent for two costs from Rs. 1300-1600 that includes dinner, breakfast and tea. The tents have attached bathrooms and are equipped with two beds with thickest of sheets, a chair and a stool. We clad ourselves with more clothes and went to the kitchen for the warmth it offered, there were travellers from England, Netherlands, Austrlia, Germany, Israel and Nepal there, already taking the benefit of the warmth. They made simple, yet delicious food of chapathis, rice, dhal and alu sabji.

It was a delightful surprise when I stepped out of the tent - the surrounding mountains were all snow capped at their peaks, the sky was unbelievably clear unlike the previous day and, best of all, weather wasn't as cold as I had expected. We had breakfast of egg omelette with bread and tea, loaded our bags to our vehicle and started off before anyone else. The landscape was exceptionally beautiful - green pastures elevating to golden brown stony peaks, with an immaculate white background of snow capped mountains kissing the fleecy clouds patterning the blue skies. The road and the pasture were separated by a slender river in the gorge with some weirdest sand patterns due to erosion.

We didn't take much time to reach Gata Loops, a series of 21 hair-pin bends which elevates you 460m gradually and aesthetically. The mountains were of vivid colours with the gorge filled by branches of tributaries and distributaries and dotted by few trees. To describe precisely the colour of water, dip a brush in sky blue paint and stir it in a glass of milk, what you get was exactly the colour of river - milky pale blue. There were frequent banking along the road for overtaking and giving allowance to on-coming vehicles. We happened to see some blue sheep on the mountains, they were too far for getting a decent shot even at 200mm. The journey was as though we were in a maze of mountains. The roads after Gata loops got terribly worse.

The landscape gradually changed to extremely gigantic mountains, looked as though they were all monolithic. We stopped at Pang for brunch, the driver said it's the last place before Leh where we could eat something. There are many tents in Pang, inside of which they serve food and tea and also provide accommodation. We weren't too hungry but the driver insisted that we eat something, we had maggi noodles and salt tea. Salt tea (namkeen chai) is a special tea made of tea leaves, soda, milk, salt and butter, at times it may contain dry fruits. It's rose in colour and they say it's a good for beating cold and AMS. For the next few hours, we passed through plains, before we started the ascent to Tanglang la, the second highest motorable pass in the world at 5360m.

We stopped at Tanglang la for photographing, there was a temple decorated with colourful festoons and a board mentioning the 'second highest pass' fact proudly. The driver warned us not to run or strain ourselves due to dangerously low levels of oxygen. We obeyed him by just clicking few shots and continuing the journey, which was mostly descent. We happened to see some local labourer groups having their lunch on the roadside, with a totally desolate landscape in the background. There were no signs of human civilization except for our car and their small group, happily lunching in that cold, inhospitable, godforsaken and oxygen depleted, mountains. Our driver was cognizant of all the shorter routes and he felt proud in taking us through those routes, though, it might have been shorter but it was definitely more strenuous both for us as well as the car.

The roads started getting better and straighter, tarmac seemed to be newly laid, a blue river along the road with few trees bearing autumn colours - these were the signs of proximity to Leh. We passed through few villages that had typical Buddhist architecture - manes and monasteries. We reached Karu (45km away from Leh) wherein the driver paid some tax and had his tea. From Karu we sped towards Leh passing through Thiksey, Shey and finally to Spithuk village bypassing the Leh city. As we approach closer to Leh, we start seeing grand Buddhist monasteries atop mountains, defaced white manes (stupas), people attired in traditional dresses with prayer wheels and countless conspicuous military camps.

The Manali-Leh highway undoubtedly lives up to the hype, it surely is a biker's paradise. With some surprisingly unique and extremely picturesque landscapes with mountains, waterfalls, rivers, green pastures, gorges and valleys, eroded structures and highest passes, definitely Manali-Leh highway is a must-do once in a lifetime. Carry enough medicines catering to problems like altitude sickness, motion sickness, fever, head and body ache, loose stool etc. Warm clothes are a must, for the weather can get ridiculously capricious and especially in the night, it gets cold. Carry plenty of water to mitigate AMS and avoid alcohol (that's not my tip though, I enjoyed small shots of Old monk rum for beating cold). Happy biking!

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