MBA days were long gone and work pangs had started hitting me. Word was in the air that there was a road in the mountains higher than the peaks of Europe. ‘Plans’ were made with friends; but I was destined to be on this magical road trip of self discovery alone. I reached Delhi airport, not yet revealing at home that I was all by myself. I hopped on to the pre-booked HPTDC Volvo from Delhi to Manali aloof of any first time solo travel jitters! Solo travel for somebody, who got scared of the demons when he slept alone. What was I thinking?!
My heart was rife with excitement & my first brush with serendipity happened when a pretty South African female was seated next to me. Her hazel eyes spoke & lips showered poetry when she asked me must-dos in India. Dinner time was hilarious with me teaching her the Indian way of eating; with hands, minus the fork – over beer.
On the Delhi to Manali bus journey, I woke up to pretty mountain views with snow fed waters of the meandering Beas river hugging the road all along. Cheap backpacker accommodation was quickly found in hippie Vashisht; where an intoxicating smell of charas and songs dedicated to Lord Shiva dominated the hazy proceedings.
‘A thousand mile journey begins with the first step.’ I had come a long way solo and the universe wasn’t going to disappoint me. Off I went (an introvert) wandering on the streets of Manali trying to find fellow travellers. Luck was on my side and now we were 5 travellers; I was able to meet 2 excited couples to accompany me on this epic journey! A white number plated Scorpio (SUV) was called from Chandigarh through a friend’s contact as the yellow one (taxi) might have trouble with sightseeing with regards to Leh Taxi Union.
The rain gods waved us off from Manali on a chilly morning with a slight drizzle as a good omen for our journey. Rohtang Jot came and went with lush greenery on both sides of the freshly metalled road but it was the other side I was curious about.
When I was small I used to think the road ends at Rohtang, now that I have grown wiser; I realise that it just begins.’
While descending from Rohtang, a little trailer of the road ahead (or whatever was left of it) revealed itself to us as our empty stomachs churned with a mixture of fright and delight. The dhaba hamlet of Khoksar was our stop (only choice) for breakfast/lunch. This road practised equality in the true sense, and how! A solo adventurer in his swanky Toyota Landcruiser Prado ate food at that meagre place and was overjoyed with the simplicity that only a free life brings.
We were in Lahaul Valley; fuel was refilled at Tandi which was the last petrol pump before Leh. The ‘Old lady of Keylong’ towered above us but we had decided that a break at Jispa (3300m) would be better for the longer run to Leh the next day. AMS(Altitude Mountain Sickness) & my interpretation of it played a big part in not going further to Sarchu (aka. the vomit hilton) at 4200m.
Colourful prayer flags fluttered and also perhaps set my soul free in the process.
Jispa turned out to be a fairytale town located on the banks of the Bhaga river. Frugal accommodation was arranged in the mountaineering Institute. The Scorpio SUV was taken on the banks for a wash and much fun ensued (holi without colours) with the icy cold waters being splashed around when the cute village kids decided to join in. Evening was surreal with dusk bringing a beautiful sunset. A surprise bonfire was arranged in the night with millions of stars I did not know even existed, while we made dinner at a nearby dhaba.
The adrenaline had well & truly started pumping as we left sleepy-eyed at 4 am next morning. The weather was dull and gloomy complimenting the stark, barren landscapes. The semi-frozen greenish waters of the Surajtaal lake just before Baralacha La woke us up from our reverie as I gasped at how pristine it looked! The pitter-patter of raindrops had turned into gentle snowflakes, a first for me and in the process making Baralacha La(4850m) my favourite pass. A cluster of colourful dhabas at Bharatpur appeared in the far distance as the valley opened up. Here I had my first tryst with Maggi as a possibility of food in the high Himalaya.
We set off again into absolute wilderness with unbelievable scenery. The landscapes changed with every turn and the plethora of colours of nature could be scarcely believed! Sarchu came and went in a flash with just the tents and no permanent settlement to speak of. We were leaving the state of Himachal Pradesh behind and entered Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir). Sarchu marks the boundary between Lahaul and Ladakh.
Someone pointed at the unreal looking windswept erosion formations just after Sarchu; we dared not even blink our eyes for fear of missing something. The road starts snaking up to the spectacular Nakee La (4900m) with 21 hairpin bends famously called the ‘Gata Loops’ in total merry go round style!
The sun gods finally decided that it was time for us to be exposed to the azure blue skies that Ladakh has since become famous for. Just when we thought the road could not go any higher, Lachung La (5025m) decided to surprise us with sharp edged mountains. The views of the other side from top of the pass were surreal & majestic. Everything appeared so tiny.
In the frenzy of clicking pictures, everyone had made the fatal mistake of exhausting their camera batteries! A persistent headache had me asking for chai and we duly made a stop at Pang (a place bang in the middle of nowhere).
The road meandered along and we were at Morey Plains (4800m). The Morey Plains is a flat stretch of land without roads, smooth round topped mountains and Tibetan wild asses grazing (visualise that :P). An impromptu race began with 4-5 SUVs and we all loved the awesome off-roading experience. The Morey plains led us to the second highest pass in the world – Taglang La (5350m). It was the highest high and the funny part came when our driver said ‘I can’t breathe!’ A puff with my asthma inhaler helped.
We descended quickly as the road tumbles downward to the first village in 250 Kms, Rumtse. The landscapes had completely changed and were now interspersed with green & yellow fields, dotted with cute looking chortens.
Sanity was restored as the road continued on a steady descent and we were at Upshi (3400m) at about 4 pm. We were all very hungry and wolfed down enormous quantities of food, and it really tasted divine. The land of the lamas charmed us with wide and relatively straight roads as we were ushered into enigmatic Leh. I was secretly hoping for a special welcome & acquiesced ‘To get to heaven; you must pass through hell’. The 475 kilometre Manali – Leh Highway had surely not disappointed us.
Buddhist monks in maroon robes muttered ‘Om mani padme hum’ with handheld prayer wheels.
A certain sense of deja vu was felt. Maybe I did not want the road to ever end!
I was about to realise the true essence of being smitten by wanderlust and the uncluttered & unconditional joy a nomadic existence gave me. These mountains loved me back!
The transformation of the scared boy was complete. I had arrived in Leh. Jullay!
Ancient Ladakhi Saying
The land is so barren and the passes so high
that only our fiercest enemies or best friends would want to visit us.