Upon reading Kerouac’s On the Road for the second time; I have a sudden need to be on a road trip. Somewhere wild and free, without a care in the world. We only live once, right?
Life is either a great daring adventure or nothing. A road trip might be the only time in your life when nothing matters as much as the present, and the road in front of you. This is a list for people who don’t sleep but instead preen their neck out of the window, for maniacs who sit on the window (wind in my hair!) to get that stunning photograph of the landscapes ahead, who ride as if it is the last day of their lives. For people who live fully and nonchalantly, who don’t care about having a change of clothes and will gladly choose an impromptu road trip over anything else in the world.
This is a list for you.
Manali – Leh : Yes, the highest road in the world. I know about AMS and all that, but it is an altogether different feel to traverse this road and arrive in 16th Century Namgyal’s capital of Ladakh. Ninety percent of travellers go via Srinagar – Leh route and come back through Manali, after getting acclimatised – losing the element of adventure. The average altitude of the 475 kilometre highway is more than 3000m. You can be certain the heady feeling of numbness on one of the numerous high altitude passes (Two over 5000m) is something you will never forget. This road trip might have been the reason for ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ quote to be coined. The only reason for this humongous road to even exist is to serve as an alternate route to the Srinagar – Leh military highway.
Penzi La : There is literally no ‘road’ on the entirety of this 240 km journey from Kargil to Padum in Zanksar. The dirt path winds along Suru river across pretty Muslim villages and majestic views of the twin peaks of Mt. Nun & Mt. Kun are visible from the road till Parkachik, best of them from little known Purtikchay. The remoteness of this road is such that you would hardly cross more than ten vehicles in a day and there are only basic JKTDC rest houses along the way till Padum. Stunning blue skies in the lush green Suru valley along the fertile basin of Suru river, the vistas change colour after reaching Buddhist Rangdum while you feast your eyes upon the dramatically located Rangdum Gompa. Drang Drung glacier is visible from the highest point of the road – at the 4411m high Penzi La that divides Suru Valley & Zanskar Valley. The Penzi La is snow bound and closed for vehicular traffic for more than eight months a year. As adventure filled as it gets.
Zoji La Pass : One of the most treacherous passes in the Indian Himalaya, the Zoji La serves as a gateway to Ladakh coming from the Srinagar side. It is a military highway and Kargil became a household name in the 1999 war when the road was nearly cut off in the shelling. The Zoji La lies on a sheer incline and becomes dangerously slippery after rain. There is severe snowfall on this pass cutting off Ladakh and Kargil from the rest of the world for more than seven months a year. Traffic jams abound on this route, pure adventure to be on a road trip among a cavalcade of army trucks and convoys. It will rekindle the feeling of patriotism in you. Hardly ten kilometres after crossing Kargil, the road enters Buddhist Ladakh and one of the biggest towns enroute is Lamayuru – the road is beautiful with many hairpin bends that is funnily called ‘jalebi loops.’ A well paved metalled road, the Srinagar – Leh highway is one ride that will keep you coming again and again; from the pretty greenery of Kashmir and Sonamarg to the stark landscapes of Ladakh.
Sach Pass : Many variations of crossing the Sach pass exist, but the most adventurous circuit remains from Bairagarh to Killar and onward to Udaipur in Pangi Valley and further to Lahaul, a part of the tribal district of Lahaul & Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. A longer circuit that can be attempted is from Dalhousie to Manali via Sach Pass. At 4420 metres, and having no ‘La’ to its name – the Sach is a treacherous, narrow pass and lies on what is widely regarded as the most dangerous road in India. Another road from the pass leads to Kashmir, onto Kishtwar. Stock up on food in Bairagarh as there is absolutely nothing after that until you arrive in the lovely town of Killar. There are no roads In boulder country and nature is king. Say your prayers to the Gods and count your rosaries, this is one journey you will never forget. Go road tripping here and brag about it for a lifetime!
Leh – Turtuk : From the heart of Ladakh to a little village in reclaimed Indian Baltistan, this road traverses through the world’s highest pass, Khardung La at 5602m (disputed) and goes from Buddhist Ladakh to Muslim Turtuk. Hardly forty kilometres out of Leh, the road switchbacks and climbs almost two thousand metres – you can have a breathless snack at Rinchen Cafeteria at the summit of Khardung La under the rapidly fluttering prayer flags. Some parts of the road are snow bound all through the year and it can get insanely cold. Real adventure is in travelling on this road in a public transport bus and see the landscape change from barren to green as it enters Nubra Valley after Diskit reminding us of lost times on the Silk route when the Bactrian camels are spotted in the dunes. Four villages that were a part of Pakistan once, were reclaimed by India in 1971. This road trip is the best way to be spellbound by the customs and food of Baltistan. Army movement means Khardung La is kept open all through the year, I had the greatest adventure of my life while being stuck in a snowstorm atop the Khardung La.
Kinnaur & Spiti – One of the signboards proclaims ‘You are passing through the world’s most treacherous road’ in Kinnaur. Roads have been carved from rough mountainsides, some of the paths are barely believable, for the stunning vistas along the Baspa river. Waterfalls run on the road with huge rocks, it almost feels like heaven. The village of Chitkul in Sangla valley, last on the Indian side before the border with Tibet is a fairytale hamlet with the holy peak of Kinner Kailash visible clearly. The road enters Spiti after crossing the beautiful monastery town of Nako and passes through India’s oldest Gompa at Tabo to run across Kaza and onward to the majestic sight of the moon lake, Chandrataal. The little visited Pin Valley is a wonderful idea for the sheer pleasure of remoteness in Mudh village (the ending point of the Pin Parvati & Bhabha pass trek). The adventure begins (not meant for the faint hearted) after crossing Kunzum La, the drive is essentially on the riverbed of Chandra river after passing the dhaba town of Batal.
Lachen – Gurudongmar Lake – At 5140m, this might be the highest lake you will ever go to for an adventure of a lifetime. The crystal clear emerald blue-green waters of the lake are sacred for Hindus and Buddhists and the lake is set amidst sharp, snowy peaks. The views are as enthralling as much as the drive itself. Hardly 60 kilometres from the pretty town of Lachen with a small Gompa in North Sikkim, this drive takes you to the high altitude Tibetan plateau. Crazy adventure junkies would be excited to know that the beautifully located village of Thangu in Chopta Valley at 4200m is a wonderful place to stay the night and marvel at the landscapes at sunrise and experience life in a remote village in Sikkim. It lies very close to the Chinese border and has an out of the world feel. Sipping warm tongba (Sikkimese barley beer) on cold snowy nights could be the perfect recipe for life!!
Kaza – Komic : Refuel at the world’s highest retail outlet and take a trip to the whitewashed, legendary villages of Spiti. The spectacular sight of Ki Monastery and cham dance (masked dance) will make you wonder about the rich heritage and history of our counry. The road winds among clouds and passes through Hikkim-Langza-Demul-Komic. Gaze in wonder at the huge statue of the Medicine Buddha at Langza under the huge peaks of Chau Chau Kang Nilda. Geologists and enthusiasts would be thrilled to know that the black mountains around Langza are home to a variety of fossils. These are some of the highest villages that are permanently inhabited, a glorious adventure would be to stay at one of the homestays and live the local way of life. At 4587m, Komic Monastery is the highest in India and the Mahakala temple has a stuffed snow leopard at the entrance. Send some postcards on a high in Hikkim, the world’s highest post office at some 4200m?? Lose yourself at the crossroads and listen to the voice of your heartbeat. It will tell you ‘If life was meant to be lived in one place, we would have roots instead of feet.’
Mid July to mid October is usually the best time to go for these road trips. All of them are high altitude journeys and the risk of AMS is a real threat. Prepare accordingly and remember to acclimatise slowly.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road