The High Road Again

Manali to Leh

June 16, 2012

Once more I am taking the road from Manali to Leh. As before, Ravi has come to the rescue but this time around it seems more difficult to get others to share. More visitors fly in to Leh nowadays it seems. Little do they know what they miss.

As before the trip started out at 5 am; the driver telling us of traffic jams enroute to Rohtang pass. Ridiculous, I thought to myself, scoffing at the idea. Although I have been back to Leh in between, I have not taken this road the last time. Little did I know of the changes that the years have wrought.

 Despite the early hour, there was indeed a traffic jam. By the time we reached the pass, a long line of cars, jeeps and SUVs snaked along the road, around every curve. The ramshackle stalls had spruced up and now sported ski suits along with tall boots, ski masks and oversized sunglasses that would put a bumble bee to shame. Too impatient to sit in their cars, tourists, trussed up in their rented suits, lumbered up the road, posing in snow banks and digging into the snow-turned-ice banks in attempts to make snowballs. The corncob vendors are out in force as are a plethora of other food vendors. They make a brisk business as traffic comes to a standstill.

As soon as we are over the pass, the traffic dies out. Our car and another, also heading to Leh are the only ones. It has been a long winter this year and the pass has only been recently opened. There is a still a lot of snow cover on the ground. How glorious it feels to be here! The colors and the beauty jaw-dropping in its splendor and leave us gaping. With me are Jake and Sophie from England, Ana from Brazil and Winnie from New Zealand. This is their first visit to India and we collectively scrape our jaws off the floor at the vistas before us.

The road is the same, an astounding gallery of sheer beauty, the lakes still under snow, painfully bright in the sunshine. I am giddy with delight and perhaps in a small measure from the altitude.

The same temple at the pass with its crown of icons from multiple religions, the same sign stating the dearth of filling stations, albeit more weathered now. The menus at the food stalls have become elaborate and among the paraphernalia of odds and ends, they even sell camping gaz cannisters.

The pit stops sport new signs and there has been some effort at curbing the garbage at each place. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, there are actually designated toilet areas. The dramatic increase in tourist numbers to Ladakh has caused some improvement after all, despite deplorable state of Ladakh itself. Sarchu is unrecognizable with its semi-permanent sleeping and dining tents. Multiple companies jostle for space on this once-empty meadow, each with their own tents and staff. They now even have flushing toilets and washbasins. And that in this fragile ecosystem that can scarcely support such luxuries. The drivers working on commission no doubt, herd their passengers to their chosen tents irrespective of our desires.

The rest of the journey is as amazing as it was before but the stretch between Upshi and Leh is a cluttered, congested mess. Of Leh itself, the less said, the better. But that is another tale, to be told down the line.

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