And so I was back in India again. My love for the country never fades. I had one place in mind this time around. Across the high mountain passes, lies a land abounding with monasteries and mysteries. The Land of the High Passes – Ladakh! And I was traveling to Leh.
After a frantic run in Delhi, I boarded a bus towards the mountain state – Himachal Pradesh in literal terms, a “Snow-laden Province. A half loaded bus would take me to Manali overnight and then head on to Ladakh from there. It was an attempt to conquer the fastest and the most dangerous way to Leh by road. You might have heard and seen some people do this on their bikes and all I have is respect for them.
- Go to Manali.
- Then take a expeditious ride over the 5 high altitude passes on the Manali to Leh highway.
- Stay in Ladakh for a day, acclimatize as best as I can.
- Climb a mountain in record number of days (if possible).
- Visit some of the “out of the world” locales of Ladakh.
- Take a ride to Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian State, Jammu and Kashmir and then,
- Catch a flight back to Delhi.
All of this in less than 14 days! Absurd!!! It always now or never for me. I did something similar on my way to Tawang. And I prepared for the worst.
If you thought this was crazy, read about the Broke Backpacker’s two thousand kilometer rickshaw race across India.
And so on the bus from Delhi, me and a friend we awaited to make our mark. The ride to Manali was so laid-back, for dinner we had some of the best Butter chicken and Naan on the way too. When we reached the next morning, we didn’t even realize how we got there without any problems.
Arriving in Manali
In Manali, first, we found some tasty morning food to go with the pleasant weather of the mountain town. Roti and Sabji, something that is found in abundance all over India. Feel free to try it at least once.
We managed to find a place on Oyo Rooms to rest our backpacks and our backs and prepare for our death ride to Leh. We scoured the streets of Manali, had dried apricots, local apple cider and even some delicious pizza and a grand plate of trout fish. All the above are produces of the mountain state that is Himachal Pradesh.
At the end of the Mall Road in Manali, private taxis and minibus drivers arrange rides to Leh for the night and next day. We haggled our way for the earliest one departing at 2am the very same night.
Getting out of Manali
2am is preposterous! We couldn’t get crazier. The minibus would take us through a journey of approximately 490 kilometers to the town of Leh in 15 hours (sometimes more sometimes less. Always go for more). We could face certain death for attempting such a feat. But so will everyone on that minibus. We weren’t alone. So we found some solace there.
We waited around patiently at the hotel until midnight. Caught up with some much-needed sleep, internet and TV and of course, a lavish dinner. At 1:30am, the minibus came around and picked us from the hotel. All the passengers booked for the same journey were picked up one after the other from their respective locations. It was the 2 of us Indian boys, 2 Germans or 3, 1 Swiss, 1 American and a silent ninja from Japan. There were 2 other Indian families and a couple of other folks as well. All packed into what I would presume a 14-16 seater.
In the dead of the night, the minibus hurried its way up the narrow roads. The first hurdle would be (the very name of it would send shivers up anyone) the “pile of corpses” or the Rohtang Pass. A high mountain pass of the Himalayas that has claimed the lives of many in the past. I’ve read somewhere that the Indian Army uses GPS to track down the old path and cut it out of the frozen ice after each winter. No wonder it has a name like that!
The Manali-Leh Highway
As soon as we left Manali something did not seem right for my friend and he was struck by an upset tummy which became worse with signs of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). For him the whole drive to Leh was marred with the symptoms of mountain sickness which can affect anyone at anytime no matter how many times they’ve gone up in high altitudes. Probably the trout fish did not sit well with him. We still don’t know.
High up after the first pass, we managed to get some hot tea on the way for some mere rupees and continued. By sunrise we were in the beautiful Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. The roads went on higher and naturally the heart kept beating faster. This is by far the most dangerous route I have taken. There are no real paved roads here at most parts. The bus leaves a trail of dust and smoke. When you lift your vision higher up and far, the terrain changes by the passing minute. The Indian families kept chanting their prayers to keep us safe, least harm befall us. This was also the best time to listen to some music.
Everytime we looked out of the bus window, mountains filled the landscape. The lush greenery of Himachal gave way to the cold arid desert country of Kashmir. And then pass after pass we crossed over to the semi-autonomous region of Ladakh known for its proximity with China or Tibet. The altitude averages at an elevation of around 4000m (13,000ft). Pretty high!!
The route touches some notable village towns such as Keylong, Jispa, Darcha in Himachal and then Sarchu from where the Ladakh region begins in the Jammu & Kashmir State of India. You could really lose your perception of time at these places. Endless hairpin roads twist and turn up to heaven and down. It is always advisable to stop, rest and sleep at a key location en route and attempt this trip in more days provided you plan ahead and you have enough time to spare. The weather and the terrain is totally unpredictable.
Battling altitude sickness
A little after Sarchu at a desert settlement called Pang, I was struck by the natural forces of altitude. Dizziness and splitting headaches are common to all and the intensity of it varies from person to person. A glass of hot lemon tea always helps though you are devoid of any sense of taste and smell. Up from Pang after a long stretch of a plateau known as the Moore Plains lies the highest point along the route. A high altitude pass claimed as the Second highest pass in the world. You can take the GPS readings later as this is at the towering height of 5328m (17,480ft) and is no secret. This is the Taglang La.
You could eventually throw up your entire belly here. I tried my best to stay calm and breathe in the little oxygen that was floating around in this empty expanse of land. If you’ve faced jet lags, then this is jet lags multiplied n times. Feel free to tinker with the ‘n’ here.
After Taglang La the road dips into lower levels finally settling around at a mean height of 3500m (11,483ft) where the town of Leh lies.
To make things easier for you, it’s always a good option to just catch a direct flight from Delhi to Leh. No questions asked, no struggles with the angel of death! Where’s the fun in that?
The Final Destination
It took us a total of 15 hours from Manali, and it was 5pm the very same day when we got to Leh in that crumbling minibus. Life flashed before my eyes in those dying hours. But hey, it can’t get more thrilling than this. Unless you decide to ride the journey on a bike or even a cycle.
The sun was about to set as we arrived and we made arrangements to stay at a small backpacker’s hotel for the night and a day to acclimatize. I had a plate of the good old Tibetan momos for dinner with a nice hot soup to go with. I got out of my shoes and after a warm shower onto a comfortable bed to feel all my muscles and joints twitching in pain from the bumpy ride to Leh. My friend wasn’t in good shape either. Cheating death comes with dire consequences. But with pain comes strength.
More on Leh town to follow and the grueling trek up to the highest trekkable peak in India.