On a moody, misty morning, we left the lush, rain-drenched Kullu Valley behind and started our drive up the hairpin bends leading to Rohtang Pass. Armed with a bright red Tavera and a young driver given to swearing and speeding depending upon the traffic, the zip from Delhi to Manali had already been quite eventful, and I looked forward to leaving behind the highway snarls to glide into the relatively remote recesses of Ladakh.
Clouds hung heavy overhead and lay scattered in pockets all over the valley as the dense green foliage started to give way to the sheer barrenness of the pass. It was early August; the snow-frolicking hordes of summer were all gone, making way for the bikers and cyclists who descend on this route for their summer of high adventure. One of the highlights of my journey was meeting some such adventure lovers, especially the ones trudging this route on cycles and bikes. Me, I was in an SUV, if you could call it that. ‘The end of the habitable world’ was the tag once bestowed on Rohtang Pass. Today, thanks to the advent of roads and motorised transport, Rohtang is the gateway to another land and to a rich, varied and different culture. From the leaden grey sky of the Kullu Valley, the skies to the south of the pass towards Lahaul threw up specks of blue, and bidding farewell to the record rainfall of the season, I started my descent into this trans-Himalayan rain shadow belt.
The road to Leh is not for the faint of heart. Leaving aside its constant state of flux – double-laning work, landslide prone stretches and glacial melts that flow across like rivers in spate – the harsh, inhospitable, high-altitude desert of Ladakh taxes the brain with its rarefied air. The laws of nature apply here like no other place and in order to ‘not be a gamma in the land of lama’, it’s best to acclimatise well at the start of the journey. I took four days to get to Leh, with halts at Tupchilling and Jispa in Himachal’s Lahaul District, a night’s halt at the lovely Tso Kar (lake) in Ladakh and finally Leh, from where, joined by my expert mountain traveller sister Bobby, we did additional forays towards Zanskar. Descending into Lahaul, with the swift flowing Chandra coming in from Spiti next to us, I saw that the valley along the river was an oasis of green potato fields and creeping vines of pea and hop and willow-planted water courses. The surrounding mountains were desiccated and windswept.
The Buddhist tenor of the land was palpable at every turn – prayer flags were festooned on houses and I made my first halt at the charming Drilbu tented retreat at Tupchilling. Overlooking the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers, the campsite enjoys a lovely solitary vantage point over the valley. The steep walk to the oldest monastery in Lahaul, the 1,200-year-old wooden Guru Ghantal Gompa, kicks off from this camp. It’s an ideal walk to acclimatise yourself, one that I did with lungs gasping for air and feet laden with strain.
Between Tupchilling and Jispa, I visited a few monasteries, none that compared to the grandeur of the ones around Leh but yet offered a pleasant enough drive or a walk. The Keylong Valley looked lovely from the garishly renovated Shishur Gompa while the Khardong Monastery, housing male and female monks, offered some interesting conversations. I even chanced on a procession of Gondla village menfolk who had gone visiting the far-flung village of Malana with their deity, Raja Gheypan. It was the last leg of their 20-day journey on foot, yet their resilient spirits held no traces of the strain. Sporting colourful topis ringed with flowers, they were carrying their devta in a flag-festooned palanquin along with 15-foot-long trumpets, which several men bore on their shoulders. The Pragya museums along the way were worth a halt, as they provided a peek into the old Lahauli way of life, with the dresses and customs being quite different from that of Ladakh. Jispa itself made for a lovely halt along the striated Bhaga River as it cut through a vast basin, mellow and gently humming.
Ahead of Darcha starts a gentle ascent leading up to the clear waters of Deepak Tal and finally the gorgeous Suraj Tal, settled in the midst of snow-rimmed peaks as the road cuts across the windswept vast flats of the high Baralacha La (15,846 ft). Under the canopy of a cobalt blue sky, Bharatpur, nothing more than a cluster of temporary parachute dhabas, proved ideal for a nice breakfast in the sun as I sat chatting with a couple from Mumbai who were braving the journey on a 150cc Pulsar. There were others too, on heavy-duty bikes with road support crews. There was one resonant chord from all: “We did not expect the road to be quite so bad.” Yet many traverse this route, which can be easily labelled as “a journey of a lifetime” once it’s done. What makes it so compelling? Perhaps it’s the remoteness, the difficulty in accessing it that lets it retain its other world feel.
During the cold, bleak, winter days, heavy snows blanket the land and obliterate the road itself. This period lasts all of six to eight months and it’s only by the end of April that the army moves in with its snow machines to bring the road to the fore again. Then there is the sheer, stark beauty of a high-altitude desert where shadow and light and heightened colour make for a beautiful contrast, washing the land in shades of gold and ochre, pristine blue and green, purple and red. Considering it’s a shamelessly naked terrain with hardly a tree in sight, these myriad colours of Ladakh almost seem like an anomaly. From Sarchu onwards starts one of the most spectacular and scenic stretches of the Manali-to-Leh drive. Windswept mountains take on shapes and formations that tickle the imagination with their forms. The road passes through a virtual gallery of nature, carved out by the sheer force of high winds over millennia. The terrain lies bereft of any permanent settlements more because it’s uninhabitable, hostile and harsh.
High mountain passes
I crossed the Himachal border into Jammu and Kashmir ahead of Sarchu, and the names of road workers changed from Deepak to Himank, or collectively the ‘mountain tamers’ as they like to call themselves. The lovely basin of the Tsarap Chu along the foot of the hill gives way to the steep ascent over the Gata Loops or hairpin bends (21 in all) veering up towards Naki La and further to Lachulung La (16,601 ft). Narrowing towards Kangla Jal (16,003 ft), the road lies hemmed in by vertical rock faces, their ridges looming overhead, opening out at the spectacular gorge below Kangla Jal. There are no electricity poles or cell towers till you get closer to Leh, just the seasonal dhabas, General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) road workers and army posts along a road which is a tiny blip in a landscape where scale is the buzz word. The current road has carpeted itself onto the old caravan trail and even today its weather-beaten condition on many a stretch bespeaks the old trail.
From Pang onwards, the road opens out, giving way to the Morey Plains, which encompass the ‘Samad Rokchen’ area, part of the Tibetan-Changthang Plateau that’s home to the nomadic Changpas, a weather-beaten, hardy lot — forever on the move with their yaks, sheep and tents. On an earlier trip, our group of three had pitched tent right above their camp at Debring. It had provided a lovely peek into their lives, customs and tenacity in braving the harsh conditions that prevail on this high mountainringed plateau. Today the campsite lay bereft even of footprints. They had moved on. Chased by a thundering storm and vertical sheets of rain at the head of the plains, I dived into the protective nook of the salt lake, Tso Kar, in the glow of a russet sunset and a herd of startled kiang (wild ass) running past, throwing mounds of dust in their wake.The beautiful tented retreat in the solitary confines of this vast bowl was a treat. At night there were more stars than sky while the mountains around the lake looked surreal in the moonlight, their snow-capped rims glowing silver. Before the next morning’s start, I walked around the lake and spotted black-necked cranes and ruddy shelducks to its far banks alongside chubby marmots and a lone golden eagle perched on a rocky outcrop.
On the final leg to Leh, the road threw up more distractions — the grasslands led into chaotic ridges as we made our way to Tanglang La (17,585 ft) and into a raging storm, the second highest motorable pass in the world and one of the definite ‘tang’ passes of the route. Prayer flags hung limp and wet and, shuddering in the cold, we took refuge in the car heating. Snowflakes the size of my palm rained down and visibility reduced to near zero, and we came to a grinding halt in biting cold for almost an hour. I think I heard the ghostly whisper of tinkling caravan bells ride past me. But I was quick to blame that on the altitude.
Giving my driver Vijay a break, I took to the wheel here on, battling a long, bumpy stretch of unsealed tarmac as soot-laden GREF workers continued with their double-laning work. After the relentless desolation of the journey, the vibrant green oasis of the village settlements of Rumtse and Sasoma below the pass came almost as a relief. The resilient Ladakhis painfully channel glacial meltwater to irrigate their fields of barley and willow groves. Civilisation came hand-in-hand with good tarmac and I effortlessly swerved along the double-lane highway through gorges of red rock and a narrow valley brimming with perky yellow flowers. The valley opened out at Meeru, ahead of which flowed the mighty Indus, its basin lined with villages and hilltop gompas. After the long and dusty journey, Leh beckoned like a shimmering jewel, an oasis of good food and comfort.
A long hot shower was quick to dispel the tiredness but the mind was lost to the bleak and beautiful highs of the road just travelled, which I rewound in the form of a slideshow of photographs, over and over to the bemusement of my tired and as yet acclimatising sister, who’d flown here on an hour’s flight from Delhi. Ladakh’s and Zanskar’s spectacular landscapes make for several great driving destinations. You could drive to Pangong Tso, visit some of the monasteries along the route, and stay overnight at a lovely camp right on the banks of the lake. The lake changes colours like a chameleon, spilling into shades of aquamarine and blue to orange and grey, at times reflecting the sky and at other times defying it all together. Spangmik is the last point your permit allows you to visit.
We were looking forward to our trip to the remote Zanskar but we learnt that a bridge over a tributary of the Indus had been washed away. It took three days of fretful waiting in Leh as the army erected a new one in its place. The drive into Zanskar is a challenge, especially the stretch from Kargil to Padum. It’s almost entirely unsealed and beset by loose gravel and dust, and the drive took us 12 hrs. At times, we crawled at a dismal 20 kmph to do the 225-km stretch. Ideally, it’s best to stop midway at Panikhar or Rangdum but we didn’t have the luxury of that additional time. On the upside, Thangbu onwards, the scenery that unfolded along the way was simply magnificent, with the Nun and Kun massifs looming over Thangbu, quaint villages and gompas alongside, and glacial tongues falling at steep angles almost on the road. The Muslim villages of the Suru Valley gave way to Zanskar’s Buddhist tenor at Rangdum and we descended into the lush fields of Zanskar below the Pensi La.
The Durung Durung Glacier to my right made a fantastic whiplash of smooth ice, which snaked its way into the valley bang along the road. The electricity situation in Zanskar is dismal and we drove into the din of night into dimly lit Padum, little more than a trekking hub. Thanks to lack of accommodation on the main crowded street, we found a charming inn in the adjoining Pibithing village. Situated at the edge of the village, my window looked onto the lovely hilltop façade of the Guru Gompa. We spent two days here, going on drives and walks to nearby gompas, and zipped on the gleaming stretch of road coming up to connect Zanskar with Nimmu.
A festival at the nearby Sani Gompa gave us a glimpse of the colours and spirit of Zanskar. Besides the chham dance, which was a highlight of the festival, it was the local Zanskaris who had turned up in full festive costume that held me rapt. And they far outnumbered the tourists. As we bumped our way out of Zanskar, I thought of the return with trepidation and joy. We gaped at the fantastic glaciers yet again as the route veered out via the grasslands at Rangdum. For a change, a road and not a trekking trail had brought me along such an offbeat spot in the Himalaya. Zanskar’s timeless remoteness can easily be attributed to its difficult access. And then I thought of the gleaming stretch of tarmac, which was coming up to connect Zanskar with Leh. This would make the journey a breeze. But then Zanskar wouldn’t be the same anymore.
ON THE ROAD
Double-laning work is going on on the Manali-Leh Road; however, it will take several years for the entire stretch to be finished. The harsh climate takes its toll on the road every year and it appears as if diligent GREF workers are constantly servicing the Manali-Leh stretch. The highway ahead of Manali is un-lit all along and it’s best to start early, by 6 am, in order to reach your destination in time. Take into account the acclimatisation drill by roping in extra days, and go on walks in Lahaul as no less than three high passes await you on the route ahead. With only one petrol pump after Manali, at Tandi in Lahaul, you need to tank up – as well as carry a spare 50-litre sturdy jerry can for fuel – especially if you’re planning on visiting the Tso Kar and Tso Moriri lakes before Leh. Remember to store fuel before heading into Zanskar as well as there are no petrol pumps beyond Kargil on this route. Mechanics and puncture repair shops are also hard to come by along most of these drives (except in main hubs such as Leh, Kargil and Manali), so check the condition of your spare tyre and give your vehicle a good servicing before pump.
A 4-wheel drive is great if you want to indulge in off-roading, which is going off the road onto natural, unsealed terrain or surface. In Ladakh, with a specialised vehicle in the form of a high clearance 4-wheel drive, you could do so on the vast, sandy Morey Plains, the riverbeds around Tso Kar and any other muddy, gravel, snowed in or rocky stretches that take your fancy. Along the Gata Loops stretch leading up to Naki La, there’s a steep stretch of gravel road, which cuts through the loops vertically, making for a steep ascent or descent. Though ascending is not recommended, as it will put unnecessary strain on your vehicle, descending in a good 4-wheel drive can be fun. But do take care where the sand is too thickly piled, for you might end up needing a rope to pull your vehicle out. Inner Line Permits are needed to visit Khardung La, the Nubra Valley and the lakes. Your travel agent can arrange these at Rs 150 per person per destination and fax or send you a scanned copy via mail. These permits can also be obtained from the Collector’s Office in Leh, situated at the far end of the Polo Ground, from where they are given free for a fixed duration of a week. If you’re intending to stay over a week, you need to apply for two permits.
Carry at least six photocopies of the permit, as you need to deposit a copy at each checkpost along the route. Seasonal dhabas are to be found along the road from Manali to Leh offering passable Indian and Tibetan food, eggs and Maggi. Carry some chocolates, biscuits and other snacks. Also, a jerry can for drinking water, which you can fill up at hotels, instead of buying Bisleri bottles. The boiled filter water served in most hotels is just fine. If you plan on having picnics or camping, carry utensils instead of disposable plastic ware. Please do remember to carry back trash. This drive can be undertaken by anyone who enjoys driving. As this road is not beset by much traffic, there’s room for everyone and accidents are rare. As the drive is somewhat taxing in terms of terrain, road conditions and altitude, it’s best to share the driving with someone. That said, there are numerous people who attempt this drive solo, but for that you need more verve than normal.
About the author:
Ahtushi Deshpande is an avid traveller and freelance photographer and writer. ku