In recent years, Leh has become less of a dream destination and more of an attainable reality for most Indian travelers. There are many ways to reach this secluded mountain town, but perhaps the best are the ones rarely chosen. The Trans Himalayan Safari or the road trip from Manali to Leh is not one to be missed in a lifetime, especially if you are a discerning traveler. Another popular route to reach Leh is via the Jammu-Srinagar Highway which eliminates the high mountain passes of the Manali – Leh route. And the easiest route is to hop on a flight from Delhi to Leh Airport.
To get an early head start, we left our hotel at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. Our driver was a twenty something native from Manali. With him was the plumber of the base camp at Sarchu. The best way to beat AMS is to gulp down as much water as you can. The travel agent had given us a chart with the number of bottles we had to down before reaching the major passes en-route. In the wee hours of the morning there is little to see outside your car window. But as we began the slow descent to Rohtang, we could see bikers who had made makeshift tents along the precarious roads and had to brave the tricks of the ever-changing weather. Our driver felt the bikers were crazy to attempt such trips. I suddenly felt sheepish at the thought of sitting in a solid Bolero and panicking in anticipation of what was to come when the bikers were braving the nasty rains and the muddy roads. But a trip is a trip, no matter if you make it in SUV or a bike. By sunrise, we had almost reached the last leg of the mountain before Rohtang Pass, but were held in a road block (another prominent feature along mountain roads) due to bad roads and mudslides. The traffic was stalled for over two hours. In a narrow turning of the mountain road there was traffic slowly moving both ways of the mountain. The cold temperature didn’t help, the bottles of water I had gulped down had to be let out and I had to relieve myself amidst the long rows of vehicular traffic. When we finally did begin to move, some drunken drivers yelled at us about a flat tyre. Our Driver and the plumber had to change the flat with rain pouring down. In the car, I could see the droplets of rain turn into ice on hitting the windscreen. After few anxious moments, we proceeded further and the driver let out a sigh of relief, he later told us that couple of trucks had slipped from the edge of the road. Incidentally, Rohtang means ‘Pile of Dead Bodies’. Rohtang-La is 3980 m or 13,054 ft above sea level and is covered with a sheath of ice.
After a quick halt, we continued further and began our descent to the village town of Koksar. Situated at 0000 in the Lahual region, Koksar is a scenic mountain village with lush green plains and grazing sheep. The local dhaaba served aloo parathas for breakfast, afterwhich we headed further to Keylong. For those who want to break their journey for the day, Keylong is a good option to choose, especially if you have more time in hand. Many travelers choose the neighboring town of Jispa for the night’s rest. The lower altitude is easier on the lungs. But our halt for the day was at Sarchu situated at 4253m, roughly 14,000ft and we had one more pass to clear for the day. By now my fear had alleviated and the driver’s mantra of not thinking helped me for most of what was to come. We reached patseo somewhere after noon and made a small detour to a rivulet. The water was freezing cold while the sun shined brightly. Just a little further is zing zing bar. It was nearing 2:00 p.m. when we began our ascent to Baralacha- la Pass. Situated at 4892 m, the pass was whitewashed with snow and was a spectacle to see. Due to the high altitude, I felt queasy so we headed to a makeshift camp which served tea. Although, we had been warned by the travel agent against drinking or eating from these camps, the tea is the best remedy for AMS.
We finally reached our base camp at Sarchu at 4:00 pm. Situated at 4000m above sea level, breathing in Sarchu is a task. To add to our difficulty, the camps had just been erected a week ago so they didn’t have electricity. Fortunately, the main in-charge offered to put a WC in the cess pit adjoining the tent, but offered only two buckets of water for our morning job. In Sarchu, you understand what it might be to experience a heart attack. Our hearts were pumping wildly (not for the love we had for each other) and I experienced giddiness and nausea. The in-charge advised to walk around to acclimatize ourselves. Located between the mountains and between the border of two states, the beauty of the location dawned upon us as we walked away from the tents. There were many campsites spread across. By evening the temperature dropped drastically. Fortunately, our main mess tent had electricity. After gulping down the hot food, our heart started playing tricks again. With nothing much to do we headed to our camps to catch some sleep. But it’s hard to sleep with the palpitations and darkness and the sub zero temperatures. After, barely four hours of sleep and what felt like the longest night of my life, it was morning. We had breakfast by 7:00 am and decided to leave the camp by 8:00 a.m.
As we drove across the many camps, we saw topography change drastically. A vast expanse of undulating barren brown land with empty river beds created a surreal setting. Not to be missed on your journey are the quirky signboards by the Border Roads Organisation. Couple of hours later we began our ascent to a rather broad but winding pass, known as Lachulung La. Practically deserted, they were hardly any vehicular traffic and we were lucky to find a car pass by. Being isolated in the deserted mountains can be both liberating and frightening at the same time. Liberating for you can get some solitude from the chaos of the city and frightening for if anything were to happen to your car, then you’d best be a believer in supreme beings. Surprisingly, we did not experience AMS at this pass. It could be the turns are broader or because we had got gradually acclimatized to the altitude changes. There were moments of silence interspersed with bonding with our chatty driver who recounted tales of travelers who he had been ferried across these magnificent mountains. The tip of Lachulung Pass pass is located at 5065m. Unlike other passes we didn’t make a stop here and continued further down. The next pit stop where many bikers choose to spend the night is Pang. We had a bowl of piping hot magi and ginger lemon tea in one of the makeshift camps. Just a little further from here is the vast expanse of land with mini twisters, known as the More plains. The fourth and final pass on our journey to Leh was the Tanglang La Pass. Located at an elevation of 5360m the snowcapped peak of the pass was decorated with countless fluttering prayer flags. This was the highest pass we had encountered in our two day journey and I did experience mildly recurring symptoms of AMS. We stopped for lunch at a small village called Upshi. We ate maggi (no it isn’t the staple diet of the locals; it’s just the best meal to eat when you’re travelling on the road!) and drank refreshing ginger lemon tea at a local home. The journey from Upshi to Leh is just a couple of hours away. The terrain looks very different from anything we saw in the journey or Himachal itself. Chortens, heaps of rocks and green grass along mountain ways welcome you to Leh. Because Leh is located on India’s much disputed border, you will see a strong army presence in Leh. After crossing the final checkpoint, we finally reached our destination at 4:00 pm in the evening. The feeling of surviving the unpredictable weather or road conditions and making it to your destination is indescribable. Strangely enough although we knew we would never meet our driver again, we had formed a bond with him.
Day 7: Rest Day
On the advice of our travel agent, we spent the next day getting acclimatized and resting in Leh. We roamed the local Tibetan markets, scouted for places to eat and tried to soak in the feel of this quaint town. Our favourite was a local restaurant right opposite to our hotel. Most of the preparations had a distinct Himalayan flavour to it. With a large expat presence in the region, it isn’t difficult to find a diverse global cuisine. The German bakeries (as they are popularly called) offer some of the most divine pastries I’ve ever tasted in India. I’m not sure if they are true to their name, but the chefs have managed to amalgamate the local flavour with the western styles quite distinctly. Pimpernickle Bakery has quite the spread of cakes and definitely worth that visit.