Saturday, May 2, 2009

Journey from Manali to Leh: A breath taking experience
Published in Chembur Ghatkopar Plus - Times of India on 8thMay09

We opted for a road trip from Manali to Leh. After an overnight halt at Manali, our next destination was Jispa. Jispa is 140 Kms from Manali and a little over 300 kms from Leh. We had to leave early to reach Jispa before sunset; the drive is very bumpy because the roads are not well built. The Manali-Leh highway is known as The Bikers Paradise. The journey is very adventurous and exhilarating. The weather was excellent as the car drove alongside the Beas River. The river was so clean and clear that we could easily see the pebbles through the water. We experienced varied level of temperatures as we moved through the scenic mountains; we took many small breaks to capture the beauty in our cameras.

Our first break was at a little distance from Manali- Rohtang Pass, a well known tourist destination. The roads leading to the pass are dangerously curvaceous and narrow; there is always some amount of traffic on the roads. Driving has to be with a lot of caution; there have been many incidents of accidents on that highway. Our driver showed us the spot where a military truck had slid down just a day before. On hearing this we requested him to drive slowly; he assured us that we were safe. He was of the opinion that the military men were not locals, so they were not well trained to drive on such ghats whereas he being a local knows to drive better. Soon we reached Rohtang pass. The place is totally surrounded by snow-capped mountains and has a breathtaking view. Just like many other tourist places in India, Rohtang pass lacked maintenance of the place and we felt that commercialization has taken its toll. Thick fog had enveloped the pass when we reached there; it was difficult to locate our car in parking lot; we also lost our way once. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful experience. The pass has featured in many Hindi films; off late “Yeh ishq hai” song of Jab we met was shot there. We missed the yak riding and ice-skiing in the pass due to lack of time; but we manage to sneak in sometime to experience the famous hot and spicy maggi noodles.

As we moved further, the traffic seemed to lessen. The highway roads are built and maintained by the Border Roads Organization (BRO). Our driver, Pannalal told us that the BRO does a good job every year but the landslides (a common occurrence in these areas) damage the roads to a large extent. We struck a good conversation; I asked him about his job. He told me he has been working as a driver since 7 years. He started at an age of 28 and regularly transported people from Manali to Leh. On knowing that we were from Mumbai, he told us he had been to Mumbai once but was unable to cope with the heat of the city and returned home earlier than planned. The more we kept moving ahead, the more we discovered beautiful landscapes. The car sputtered, hiccupped and groaned but kept moving over near-vertical lifts and gravity defying bends. Thoughts of car skidding down those bends were unavoidable, and I kept telling myself that I am not afraid of death. Because of the high altitude and extreme heat during the day; fatigue and giddiness were inevitable. At one stage, it became so bad that I had to ask Pannalal to stop as I felt like vomiting. It is advisable to drink a lot of water to keep the giddiness away. Weariness had already started creeping in as we kept dragging on; resisting toilet breaks. Each passing kilometer seemed like a blessing.

Sleepy Jispa

Jispa is a remote, sleepy village amidst dazzling mountains. It is very densely populated. There is only one Hotel in Jispa. When we entered the rooms of the hotel Jispa we were in for a big surprise. No television, No fan and a STD phone booth was not a possibility in the village. When we enquired about the fan, we were told that there is no need of a fan since the temperature falls in the night to near zero degrees. Fearing a power cut, we ensured that our mobile batteries were full on reaching the hotel. The scenery around the hotel was spectacular but we were too tired to venture out. We had the dinner at 8 pm and soon went to sleep. Almost every hotel in Leh offers vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food. The hotel staff was not friendly; it was more like “self-service”. We woke up early and were ready to leave for Sarchu which is 4 hrs drive from Jispa. We made good use of the extra time before we left. We pondered to explore the little village and took many photographs of the exotic river, Buddhist temple, and Stupa. Since it was early morning, the shops in the village were shut. This place is normally promoted as enroute to Leh since it helps in acclimatization to high altitudes. Jispa is located at about 11000 feet above sea level and is situated on the banks of Bhaga River. The place is primitive but a real beauty.

Sleepless in Sarchu

Soon after the breakfast we headed towards Sarchu. The road from Jispa to Sarchu was not as bad. We had a good night’s sleep but we still slept most of the time in the car unmindful of the beautiful views around. When we reached Sarchu which is located further up at an altitude of 14300 feet (more than Leh), it was well past noon. We were warmly greeted by the manager of the Gold Rop camp. We had to stay overnight in a tent. It was very windy. We took a small nap after lunch. I woke up with a strong head ache and had to apply balm to cure it. Soon we realized uneasiness in breathing because of the high altitude. The arrangements at the tent were too basic; than what we expected it to be. There was a huge bed in the middle of the tent, a small table and an attached bathroom with a bucket and a tap. We were given a battery run fluorescent light as there was no electricity. There was nothing much to do at the camp, except roaming around the plain and taking a few pictures as remembrance. We discovered that we were the only ones staying at tent. We had our dinner as early as 7 pm and were happy to see a group of Israelis join us at the dinner. Since we practically had nothing to do, we slept quite early. Though awaken quite a few times by the sound of the flowing winds. At one time I felt that the winds may blow the tent away but that was just a wild imagination of a person sleeping in the tent for the first time. I don’t think I really slept that night.

We got up early next morning and were surprised to see an unexpected visitor at the door. It was a Marmot. As we stepped out of the tent we saw plenty of them ready to pose in front of camera. It was a nice experience, we politely obliged by taking their pictures.

We left Sarchu at about 8 am for Leh with an assurance from Pannalal that the road to Leh would not be as bad but deep down we were reluctant to believe him. Soon the car reached the Himachal Pradesh-Jammu-Kashmir border and we were in for a treat as nature offered panoramic view. We then moved ahead and most of the time kept racing with tankers on dusty roads. A lot of bikers on the road dared to ride with their bikes on rough roads. I kept wondering what they would do in case the tyres of their bike gave away. Pannalal told me that most of these bikers were well equipped to handle such situations. Bikes were available on rent both in Leh and Manali and most of the foreign nationals opt for an adventurous bike ride.

The following road was rough as expected but soon our car was moving at a speed of about 100 kmph as the difficult mountain passes gave way to high altitude plains. There are no road side stalls on the highway to buy food or water. We made good arrangements for food and water before leaving from sarchu. To cope with the altitude sickness, we drank more and more water and the opportunity to buy water seemed limited. As we neared Leh, the roads first became better and then great. Pannalal told us that the roads in and around Leh were managed by the Indian army who had its presence everywhere in Leh. The houses and structures in and around Leh are laden with prayer flags which are culturally significant landmarks of Ladakh. And there are Gompa’s (Buddhist Temples) everywhere. We also came across Lama’s on the way. Soon we reached our hotel in Leh with a feeling of relief after a long and tiring journey. We were pleased to be in Leh after the most exhilarating and challenging journey of my life so far.

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