There are two possible ways of getting to Leh by road. The first is the Leh-Srinagar highway. The second route is the Manali-Leh road. This road weaves in and out among the mighty snow-clad peaks of the Western Himalayas over a stretch of nearly 485 kms . The road is open from mid-July to mid-October every year, depending on weather and road conditions.
This second land approach to Ladakh can be made more adventurous by taking the Spiti Valley route, although it takes more time, I believe, it’s worth it! (See my husband’s 1st trip travelogue for details)
Anyway, our mission today was relatively simple – reach Hotel Chandra Bhaga at Keylong before 6 pm so that we can get a few rooms to stay for the night.
We were to start our day at 5 am, and surprisingly even for a late riser like myself, this was not a daunting task. The excitement and enthusiasm was still very high and so was the fact that I needed to eat soon.
Mandi to Manali (110 Km)
On our way to Manali we encountered a dimly lit, really long tunnel, unexpected but enjoyable. In about an hour we reached Manali and had some eggs, paranthas and tawa bread. We had to do our last checks on our bikes, petrol, and other supplies here, as this was the last township. The next bike workshop after Manali was Keylong our destination for the day.
Manali is located at the confluence of the Beas & Manalsu Rivers in the northern Kullu valley. It is a popular tourist destination and hence the market is full of hotels, guest houses and restaurants . One can rent bikes here – and everywhere you look, you’ll see or hear an Enfield.
We avoided the market, and ate at a small dhaba across the river. On our way to Rohtang, we came across hundreds of River Rafting camps and trekking tours, something to plan for the next trip.
Manali to Rohtang Pass (51 Km)
As soon as one leaves Manali, the climb for Rohtang Pass starts. After about 50 kms of continuous ascent you reach the famous Pass.
Rohtang pass is a high mountain pass across the Pir Panjal range. It has the infamous reputation of unpredictable weather and traffic jams that last for hours. We encountered both – a never ending traffic jam and cold constant rain.
Rohtang La means a place where spirits freeze. Ro means spirit and tang is short for tangmo or cold. The Rohtang Pass weather certainly lives up to this reputation. Although I must admit, the ride till the pass was breathtaking, we saw our first of many – waterfall, cloud cover over the mountain, snow and an unexpected para sailing duo.
The permission to travel on this highway is given by Indian army after they clear the snow and inspect the road for its fitness and safety for movement of person and the vehicles. As it is the only road link between the Kullu Valley with the Lahul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh the traffic problems are inevitable.
As you pass the pass you realize sharp contrast in the terrain and how quickly things change. The range acts as a natural, cultural and ecological divide between the lush green Kullu valley and its Hindu culture vis-à-vis the dry desert regions of the Lahaul/Spiti/Leh and its Tibetan Buddhist culture. I was in awe of it all.
They day we were to cross the pass was also the day that Sonia Gandhi laid the foundation of the 8.8-km-long Rohtang tunnel at Dhundi at the base of Rohtang. The tunnel is expected to provide all-weather connectivity and reduce the distance between Manali and Keylong by at least 48 km. The tunneling is expected to be completed in 2015. But the traffic of party workers and tourists was not a good omen for us. It took us almost 3 hrs to reach the other side.
After Rohtang, the road descends into Chandra Valley passing through Khoksar and then to Tandi, where the Chandra river meets the river Bhaga.
On our way down we stopped at Gramphoo’s only visible dwelling, where we had piping hot Maggi. This was the same place my husband had stopped 3 years back when he took a trip via Spiti. We then realized the strategic location of this ‘Lama Dhaba – we now call The Only Place’ were the two paths met.
We were off too quickly for my liking, but we had already lost a lot of time and the 6 pm deadline was soon approaching.
(c) Photographs by Sharninder Khera and Nitin Joshi