"One of the great motoring journeys of the world", that is how the drive from Manali to Leh in Ladakh is described. Stunning landscapes, four high passes, including what is claimed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world, and all at altitudes between 3,000 – 5,000 metres. Sounded too good to miss, particularly as I had a couple of suitably adventurous volunteers who were gamely up for the experience. The adventure actually started somewhat earlier than planned; the risk of monsoon rain in the foothills of the Himalayas dictated that we also drove from Delhi to Manali (the start point) rather than flying to Kullu (nearest airport to Manali). Starting at the unearthly hour of 0500, skirting
Chandigarh by 1000, we appeared to be making good progress. Not so, a couple of hours latter we hit a long queue of trucks. Heavy rain the night before had resulted in major landslides on our intended route. Many phone calls later the driver appeared to have established an alternative route many miles to the west via Hoshiarpur (where Dr Manmohan Singh is reputed to have studied) and Una before eventually bringing us to Mandi and the “main” road to Manali. Somewhat dishevelled and weary we eventually arrived in Manali at 2230, which made the fresh trout and a cold beer waiting for us that much more welcome.
The next day was somewhat more leisurely. After packing up the jeeps (2 travelling in convoy for safety) we headed off up the winding road towards the Rohtang Pass (3980m). The road was packed with trucks, cyclists, motorbikes, honeymooners, day-trippers and, at least to start with, some very optimistic tuc tuc’s. The scenery was very alpine; green pasture, forest and the odd glimpse of a snow capped summit plus the ubiquitous dhaba serving welcome cups of chai. For most people the pass itself was the destination; lots more dhaba’s, car parking and pony’s to take people up to the snowline – still a couple of hundred metres above the pass. Descending from the Rhotung Pass was like entering a different world; much more tranquil, apart that is for the colourful trucks and fuel
tankers belching black diesel fumes as they hurried to re-supply Ladakh during the short window of opportunity before the road closed for the winter. The countryside was now much drier, but still well populated with villages clustered around patchwork fields on the hillsides and in the valley bottom. the occasional house and monastery could also be seen clinging precariously to what looked like inaccessible cliffs. The scenic and remote valley of Spiti lay to the east, but our journey took us west to our next overnight stop in some bamboo huts overlooking the small village of Tandi (2860m) and a good height to acclimatise for the journey ahead.
The next day broke to a clear blue sky and a wonderful view of the village of Tandi sitting on a small plain in the crook of the Chandr river backed by high mountains, barren save for a couple of hanging glaciers oozing out from their self made valleys. First obstacle to be negotiated on leaving camp was a couple of flocks of sheep and goats blocking the
bridge over the river. The shepherds were more worried about disentangling their flocks than letting traffic past, but did an excellent job of crowd control so we were soon on our way again. The road at this stage was in good condition and gently wound its way along a well-cultivated valley dotted with small hamlets to the town of Keylang. Beyond Keylang the mountains got ever drier and started to exhibit the distinctive brown colouration for which Ladakh is renowned.
Habitation and cultivation soon disappeared and by the time we approached the next pass (Baralacha La – 4883m) a cluster of 3 huts counted as a village. Once over Baralacha La the landscape opened up into a kaleidoscope of browns; so many different hues and patterns that the colour brown can never again be considered bland. The dusty road wound down towards a welcome cluster of “parachute” dhaba’s. So called because of the old white silk parachutes used to cover over a circular dry stonewall. The one we stopped at was without doubt the most comfortable dhaba I have yet visited in India; the chai was excellent too. Our stop for the night was just a few miles
further, at a tented camp near Sarchu on a wide plain (Lingani Plain) complete with river and bounded by stunningly beautiful mountains (brown of course). There was ample time to explore before sunset, although we were now at 4200m, so I had to be a little restrained in my wanderings to try and avoid provoking altitude sickness. The tents were very comfortable – proper beds, duvets, en suite and, for those who wanted one, even a hot water bottle.
After a cold night with only fitful sleep due to the altitude, I awoke to another clear blue sky. The day ahead would be the last, longest and highest on the drive to Leh. It also turned out to hold some of the most spectacular scenery. We followed the stunningly beautiful river valley for a couple of hours before climbing almost 500 metres via a series of 22
spectacular hairpin bends known as the “Gata Loops”. After another checkpoint (3rd so far) and two more passes (Lachalung La – 5,065m), we arrived at the Moray Plains, a huge flat
expanse of grassland some 10 km wide, 40km long and at an altitude of 4,400m. The sparse grass is nevertheless sufficient to support nomads herding their yaks and the Tibetan Wild Ass or Kiang, of which we were fortunate to see a herd of about 30. The road now headed steadily upwards towards Taglang La, which at 5,370m was both the highest point on our journey and is reputed to be the second highest motorable pass in the world. From here it was downhill all the way to Leh and a very welcome cold beer and hot shower – in that order.
Leh is a great base for exploring Ladakh and caters well for the trekking fraternity as well as those seeking a more cultural experience exploring the many Buddhist monasteries in the area. I took the opportunity to do just that, visiting the nearby Thikse, Shey and Stok monasteries. As ever in India I also stumbled across the unexpected. In this case it was a polo “practice” match on the polo ground in Leh. It may have been billed as a practice, but there was little evidence the participants had been told as they launched themselves and their small ponies at each other. The polo ground is a dusty patch of bare earth that
also serves as a car park and thoroughfare for locals, monks and cows. The parked vehicles were seen as a minor irritant to be negotiated or exploited whilst those unfortunate people who happened to be seeking a shortcut home were totally ignored, including a couple of monks who fled in terror, crimson robes flapping in the wind, as half a dozen horses bore down on them in pursuit of the ball. Cows fared no better. As a “spectator” in the small terraced stand I thought I might be safe. Wrong again. It became rapidly apparent that if the ball went into the stand the horses followed, even more risky when glued
behind a camera, which probably explains how I came to have a close up shot of the crotch of one of the players. An hour later the practice was finished and I was exhausted – players and ponies looked as if they were ready for another work out.
Photo credits: Jeremy Richards.