Today was an easy breezy rest day. The total distance we had to travel was 45 km, from Karu to Leh, and just about an hour of driving time. We rode along the Indus, appreciating the smooth road, the sun and the cool breeze. Enjoying ever last bit.
We reached our destination. It’s an uneasy feeling, for months you are planning a trip, preparing for it and in the last couple of days you are struggling towards it. But when the final destination is just an hr away – you don’t want it to end.
Many people rush through this route completing it in 2 days, which is a crime. Manali-Leh should be done leisurely. The real fun is in the journey and not the destination. Although if the destination is Leh you are still in for a lot more experiences.
Leh is India’s bond with the striking past, when long caravans plied the ancient Silk Route and lingered long in Leh to rest, to buy, to plan, or just to visit. Leh is situated at the summit of a triangular plateau formed by the Indus at an altitude of 3368m. Ladakh is the most remote region of India; a barren cold desert. Ladakh beckons for more than one reason. The defiance of its barren landscape is its unique flora and fauna, its culture, it’s clear blue skies and clean air, the land where things are done differently.
There are so many things to do in and around Leh that you need another week to get around it all. I’m going to need a couple of other posts to cover all of them. Right now, it is my day of rest.
(c) Photographs by Ritika Sabharwal, Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
Debring marks the end of the majestic Morey plains and the start of the long gradual climb up to Taglang La. Debring is also known for the camps set up by the nomads (Changpas) from the nearby TsoKar village during their summer months. There is a detour via Tso Kar and Tso Moriri to Leh (240 km) from here.
The stunning Tso Kar Salt wetland at 4600m is the breeding ground of numerous birds such as the endangered Black-headed Crane and the Bar headed geese. One can reach Tso Moriri and Karzok village (75 Km from Tso Kar) and observe the wildlife at the Wetland Conservation Reserve.
Most people do the Leh-Upshi-TsoMoriri-TsoKar-Debring-Pang route on their way back, since you require permits to visit TsoMoriri that are available in Leh.
We didn’t take this bifurcation and continued our journey to Tanglang Pass at an elevation 5415 m, it is the second highest mountain Pass in Ladakh, after Khardung La. It is also the last pass on the Manali to Leh road.
I had just about got used to the mighty plains when the twirling roads of the mountain started. The long-long-long sections of constant gradient climb went on forever. Interestingly we would be able to see the destination at all times. The visible peak may fool you with a sense that it is just a touch away- in reality it was a long hard laborious climb from the base.
Taglang La was breathtaking beautiful. Crossing over the five thousand metre passes affords views of the stunning and bizarre territory. We took a couple of pictures and we were off.
Taglang La to Rumtse (About 50 Km)
The pass was our last altitude feature before we descended down to the Leh-Ladakh valley. The snow was melting and trickling on the road, creating small waterfalls. The road was mainly sand or gravel with ripples that made driving a very shaky experience.
We saw a group of men and women making the road. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) does whatever it can in building and rebuilding these roads. One really appreciates all the hard work and effort that goes in to this. Project HIMANK was started in Aug 1985 exclusively for the development of road infrastructure in Ladakh due to the ever-increasing workload of the BRO in J & K. The Project provides the necessary wherewithal to keep the lines of communication open through out the year, not only in Ladakh, but also in the operationally sensitive Siachin sector. Battling tough terrain and extreme climatic conditions, coupled with a short working season of four months, Himank has carved a niche for itself in the Ladakh district of J & K and can rightfully claim the title “The Mountain Tamers”. Project HIMANK has the unique distinction of maintaining and improving roads over the three highest passes of the world viz. Khardungla, Tanglangla and Changla. They also have a lot of humorous signposts to give the travelers a doze of laughter.
We continued to lose height and finally reached Rumtse, We had just conquered the Second highest motorable pass in the world, a picturesque setting with conditions equally harsh. The road soon turned from bad to awesome, half way after the decent. The freshly made road is as good as freshly baked bread. Actually, after witnessing the kind of roads we had – much better!!
Rumtse to Upshi to Karu (About 20 Km)
We almost screamed with joy on the sight of the first inhabited village after 350 Kms after Jispa. Rumtse as it is called is situated on the banks of a local river, which starts from Tanglang La, a tributary to River Indus. We stopped at a ‘market’. Yup! I’ll call the six or so shops with all supplies a town market now. Firstly, these were not tents!! Also, there was even a STD booth.!!
We all had some lunch, a full thali experience with dal, veggies and rice. Walked around a bit and talked to the locals. Learnt – Julley. The most important word in Ladakh, that means – hi, thank you, good-bye, good-day and so on. Say it with a smile and everyone is your friend here.
As we continue the descent to Upshi the scenery changes dramatically as we arrive in a fertile irrigated valley by a river dotted by pretty villages and Stupas. The spectacular red colored mountains around us add to the beauty and richness of the scenery. Ladakh is unparalleled by any other landscape in the country.
The trip is a photographers dream come true. While we all were carrying our cameras and tripods, I didn’t take too many photographs. Probably because I didn’t know which one to take and which to leave. Everywhere one looked was a photo-op. I just left it to the others, while I enjoyed the ride.
Soon after taking a turn from Upshi, we reached Karu. Reaching Karu brought back some old memories for me. I had spent a long summer here when my dad was posted in this region. Back then, this was a dry desert with sand storms and all. Ladakh is a cold desert and Leh was part of that landscape. Things have changed now, Karu is green – Lush green.
There is a Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) in Leh & Karu. Here scientists have undertaken a successful plantation drive, driving up oxygen content in the region and even helping farmers produce vegetables. This acts as life support when transportation routes from the valley seize during winter months.
This was the last stop for the day, we all had mixed emotions, feeling happy to achieve what we did and sad that it was coming to an end. It’s like when you put your heart and soul into something and when it is over, you feel kind of empty. We had been through the highs and lows – literally and figuratively. That’s where the journey becomes an adventure and that’s what makes each kilometer on the 475 kms Manali-Leh an experience of a lifetime.
(c) Photographs by Ritika Sabharwal, Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi
The morning sun was a welcome feeling as we got up the next day at Pang. Although Pang is at a height of more than 15000 ft, it is a major stopping point on the Manali-Leh highway. Travellers can be assured of both food and accommodation here. There are always a couple of parachute tented camps with necessary supplies.
We stayed at the Army Transit camp, which is considered to be the world’s highest military transit camp situated at an altitude of 15,768 ft. The medical aid that we received was at the world’s highest functional hospital.
Since I hadn’t been feeling well when we started from Keylong the day before, as soon as we reached the Pang Transit camp, the guy suffering from AMS and I went to the MI room. We were accompanied by the other four in the group. It turns out that everyone was low on oxygen except me, mainly because I was eating light and drinking lots of water. Funny how things work out! Some of us were having glucose water, which the doc said we shouldn’t have. The idea is to store the energy and not get burned out too fast. Also having a Diamox as a precautionary measure at Keylong or Jispa is a good idea.
Pang to Morey plains to Debring (About 50 Km)
We started early from Pang, by now we all were professionals at packing our saddle bags and strapping them on to our bikes. Water bottles – check, air pressure – check, jackets & eye gear – check, Pillion – check. There was a comfy rhythm in which everything fell into place.
Interestingly on trips like these the group dynamics builds and many roles emerge voluntarily, someone takes up the responsibility of being the – Planner, Timekeeper, Funny Guy, Safety guy, Inventory keeper and so on. Especially on a ride like this when you push your endurance to the limits, being in a group helps. In spite of all the dangers involved, the Manali-Leh highway rewards you with great friends and spectacular memories.
So, we were off to Karu today, and we were stuck in a traffic jam within 10 min from exiting the transit camp. I guess everyone at Pang decided to leave together. There were trucks, four wheelers and lots of bikes, on both sides of a narrow road. We wriggled our way thru and within 8km we reached the starting of Morey plains.
‘Morey Plains’ is Phenomenal. It is a flat distance of 45 Km situated at an altitude of more than 15800 ft, a big change from the passes we were climbing and descending over the last few days. The tarmac roads were being constructed and we got about 5 km of smooth roads. After that it was mostly like a dirt race track made by the vehicles passing through this stretch. The average speed at this altitude is not high, so one feels like you are shifting in space in slow motion.
The battery on my ipod had run out long ago, and with the helmets and other jingbang, it’s not easy to talk to the rider. Actually, by now there isn’t much to say. So you are forced to keep silent, a difficult task for me in ordinary circumstances.
Many times one has heard that people come to India for soul searching, or people going to the Art of living course or Vipasna. When we were in Pune, we met people who had enrolled into the Osho ashram and even Elizabeth in Eat, Pray Love comes to find inner peace. To all these people, all I can say is – Ride down to leh. It’s a better, more fun way – I promise. Like they say ‘In silence, find thy self’.
Jokes apart, this is actually true. Being with yourself makes one focus on what’s important, who one really is – you know, the good stuff. It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the daily grind of life, back home.
I read this sometime back and it kind of sums up what I want to say, “I travel because it makes more sense to me than not travelling. I travel because a breath taking landscape is hands down worth a 15 hour flight. I travel because I want to have a broader and deeper perspective of life. I travel because I love it.”
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi