Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Manali To Leh


When we started on the 500-km journey from Manali to Leh we had no idea that we were going to have more adventure on the journey than on the trek itself. Folks here have an extremely liberal definition for what constitutes a road. Can't really blame them because the elements are so cruel here. The first part of the journey was on one such poorly disguised road up the mountains to Rohtang pass which we navigated before sunrise. I've paid several dollars on fancy roller coasters and had much less fun on them than on the curves here. Tashi and Pooran, our nepali drivers, seemed at first to be insane to be driving so dangerously. At every turn I clenched my teeth, tightened my thighs, clasped my seat and curled my feet inside my shoes as if to prepare for an imminent slide downwards. After a few hours, though, I had numbed down and had in fact begun to appreciate the skill of the drivers. Yet, I distinctly remember thinking "what if.." several times. The awesome sunrise that lit up the peaks, however, made it all worth it.


After a refreshing breakfast at Keylong, we started again. The landscapes are stunning on this stretch. Most of us had our cameras sticking out of the window clicking in every direction. I vowed to come back here on this route on a motorbike some time in my life, because looking at these vistas through a window is not doing justice to them. At some point on the journey our collective exhaustion got the better of our wide-eyed wonder and most of us had dozed off. When we woke up, we realized that the Qualis wasn't behind us anymore.. On this stretch, at intervals of roughly 50-70 kms, there are tiny camps consisting of half a dozen parachute tents inhabited by tibetans who sell food and shelter to travelers. Sarchu is one such camp exactly midway between Manali and Leh. We were getting refreshed there when a Sardar came enquiring if we had companions traveling in a Qualis. He coolly informed us that it had toppled 20 kms away. It was hard to discern the meaning of his nonchalance; was he trying to reassure us, or was he hardened by the cruelties of this land? Chida and I immediately headed back in our Sumo. We reached there and realized that the Sardar's version was fairly accurate. Tashi had taken a sharp turn and had almost crashed into a rock that had fallen on the road in landslide. He had swerved sharply to avoid it, found himself driving towards the deep gorge that lined the road, had veered back towards the hillface and the vehicle had turned turtle in the process. When I saw the location of the accident I had a shiver run through my innards. I can't complain about our share of luck though; not one person was injured! The car didn't start, but between all the misfortunes that we could have possibly faced we gladly embraced this one. We left the car on a wide part of the road, came back to Sarchu and enjoyed hospitality that only tibetans can provide.


The next morning, Tashi had managed to coax the vehicle to life and we were on our way. What followed was my favorite part of the journey. Between Sarchu and Pang there lies a seemingly never-ending dust plateau that's lined by awesome mountains on all sides. The strangeness and the desolation of that 50km stretch can hardly be described. We stopped again for tea at Pang, and drove on continuously almost till Leh. Hot water baths and soft beds brought us tears of joy.


The return journey (after our trek that is) on this stretch was fascinating too. It was almost as long, except that this time our bodies were sore even before we boarded the cabs. Unexpected snowfall at Baralachla regaled us briefly but it was quickly back to the grind. To give you an example of how cruel these roads are, the Qualis we had hired lost its wheel alignment so bad that the vehicle kept curving to the right on its own. To add to the thrill, Sharmaji, our driver regularly opened the door to spit out his gutkha (which he explained he needed to eat because he hadn't brushed for 3 days). By the time we had reached Rohtang pass the tempers inside the vehicle were not amusing at all. If something can go wrong it will, right? The vehicle promptly got stuck in a slushy ditch and needed all of us and 4 drunk Sardars to lift it out. We reached Manali, once again, just before sunrise. We had been on the road almost continuously for 28 hours. This time just ARRIVING brought us tears.
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