Taking the High Road

Manali, India

July 9, 2003

True to his word, Ravi, at the Himalayan Caravan, has found a few others to share the ride to Leh and has a van and a driver. All is set and the car will pick us up tomorrow. Ravi told me that food might be found in the shops at Leh but kerosene might be hard to come by and so, I decided to get some before leaving. It won’t be enough for all the treks, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I didn’t need to go very far; the owner of the momo shop which I’ve been haunting the last couple of days, sold me what was left of his stock. Later, Ravi topped it off, free of charge. I’m excited now and can barely wait for tomorrow to arrive.

July 10, 2003

Surprisingly on time, the car came by at the godawful hour of 6 am and picked us up at our various guesthouses. The usual traffic on the roads had not begun as yet and we sped out of Manali quickly. As we left the town behind, the road wound in and around curves shrouded in pines and evergreens. In patches, here and there are fields, some terraced, some lying along the slope. The peaks of the mountains show occasionally through fragmented clouds. The air has that damp feel, typical of monsoon season.

We climb steadily and soon the trees are scarce although the slopes are still green with low-lying shrubs. Around a corner, we surprise a pair of eagles. At close range they look huge, with wingspans that are easily a couple of meters. They take off, gliding majestically into the air and soon we come to the area just below Rohtang Pass. A stretch of road, no more than three hundred meters, it is lined with dhaba-style cafes, tea stalls and little makeshift booths selling souvenirs and trinkets. A small temple stands to the side. I asked the tea-stall owner, to whom the temple was dedicated.

“What difference does it make?” he replied. “All gods are the same” he added sagely.

The Rohtang Pass sits at 3978 m, amid brisk wind. Along the way, we had started seeing glaciers. At first glance, they looked like gray scree slopes, made of rocks and rubble but small patches showed that the rocks were just the top layer. Beneath them lay ice, melting at the edges, dripping slowly into rivulets that will increase in volume until they become frothing, raging streams and rivers. The sides of the glaciers that come down to the road have been cleared of the debris and smoothed into arches, meant for tourists to stand in and be photographed. Not to be confused with any other place or time, the photographs come with names and dates. The letters are made of plastic stuck in the ice. It is the work of some of the locals who come up here in the tourist season. A few horses are dragged up as well, for the quintessential holiday-on-horseback pictures. And for those adventurous enough to go walking on ice, there are rubber boots for hire, lined up along the roadside. They must do a brisk business among Indian tourists. Seeing snow for the first time, no doubt deserves commemoration, the tackier, the better.

My watch reads more than 4000 m and all around us now are high, snow-laden peaks. Majestic, awe-inspiring and breath-taking are words that come to mind as we gape slack-jawed. They dwarf the road and the heavy traffic we have been seeing. Most are trucks and goods carriers, on long-haul journeys.

Traveling with me are five others. Nicole and Sjoerd from the Netherlands and Robin from Berlin keep us in stitches with hilarious stories of their travels in India. The couple of Belgium are quieter and seem dumbstruck with the gain in elevation. We all want to stop and take photographs often but our driver clearly thinks otherwise. He seems to be constitutionally unable to let any other vehicle pass us and so we go barreling along, the horn applied diligently, despite our objections.

This is a sealed one-lane road, the wear and tear from the harsh climate reducing it to a pot-holed dirt road along many stretches. Winter, indeed most of the year, sees this area cut off from the rest of the country, the passes filled with snow and ice. Summer is the only season when repairs can be done and it is in full swing now. Tar is melted in large pans and ladled by hand over rocks that are broken by hand as well. The people who work are among the poorest – we see them by the side of the road, with tar-blackened hands, wearing threadbare clothes in this cold, staring as we roar past. They probably get paid a pittance for their back-breaking work, nor do they expect more. Such is India.

Military posts and checkpoints will start to crop up and we troop out with our passports at the first checkpoint. A couple of men sit at a table with a massive ledger in front of them. One of them painstakingly inscribes the details of each passport by hand. He flips through my passport, looking for a visa – once, twice and then looks up with a confused expression.

“Where is visa?” he asks.

His superior, sitting next to him leans over to check and then gives him a verbal rap on the head. “Why would an Indian passport need a visa?” he barks.

“No need to check in” he says as he returns my passport. Finding that this is my first trip to this area, he bids me welcome with a grin. He has a weakness for “viewpoints” and intent on rhapsodizing on the best ones, invites us to sit a while and have some tea. But our driver is already upset that we have taken an entire fifteen minutes and we are hurried off to the car to continue at his hair-raising speed.

A little after the Chandra river, the road splits. To the east lies the Spiti valley, past Chatru and Kunzum La and to the northwest is the road to Leh. We continue climbing, past villages of Sissu, Ghondhla, Tandi and the relatively large town of Keylong. Keylong looks beautiful, the red roofs overlook neat gardens brimming with flowers and vegetable patches. High on the hillside is a gompa, its orange and beige walls gleaming in the pale sunshine. I’ll have to visit it someday, I tell myself.

On we sped, our next stop at Darcha for lunch.  With military tents and a checkpoint, this is not even a town, but a conglomeration of a few shacks by the roadside serving food. Asking for the toilet elicited a careless wave in the direction of the cliffs. Liberally strewn with filth and feces, I wondered how long it would for this garbage dump to bury the beauty of the surroundings. Dusty windblown and barren of all vegetation, the place itself has a stark beauty that appeals to me. Geographically, historically and culturally this area is more Tibetan than Indian, as so it shows – in the faces of the locals, in the foods like momos and thukpas that have begun to elbow in between chapattis, curries and the ubiquitous maggi noodles.

At above 4500 m, there are no trees or even shrubs anymore. Mountains rear up above us on all sides and glaciers stretch over immense distances.  Bare rocks tower over us, capped with snow and ice. Pools with names like Suraj Tal and Chandra Tal lie sparkling in the sun, their colors a palette of indigos and blues and aquamarines. This is magic-land. I have that tell-tale feeling of happiness, a sure sign of high altitudes. There are those that claim I am simply suffering from the effects of thin air. But no matter, there is that little jig of happiness and I wear an ear-splitting grin. It is cold. Even the sunshine cannot negate the biting wind as we all scramble in the packs for our scarves, jackets and gloves.

There are no villages or towns, nor signs of habitation of any kind. Petrol stations are few and far between. One signs reads “Next Filling Station 365 kms ahead”. We are entering Buddhist country. Some of the trucks carry the image of the Dalai Lama in the pride of place above the cabin, a spot usually reserved for anyone of the pantheon of Hindu gods.

It is colder still at the next pass. Baralacha La sits at 4950 m amid chortens and the relentless wind snaps the prayer flags. Not wanting to tarry for long, we hurried back to the car in record time, pleasing our driver. The tell-tale headache was beginning to make itself felt and I guzzled water as we drove on to Sarchu where we would spend the night.

A long wide saddle between passes, surrounded by high peaks, Sarchu is mostly open, empty space. It boasts a military camp nearby and at one end of the meadow, a smattering of tents. These are canvas tents, their frames made of heavy metal poles. Inside the tents are metal hospital beds with a thin mattress. The grimy pillow, is complimentary. One look at the blanket adorning each bed has us digging in our packs for our sleeping bags as well as additional fleece layers. There is a small stone-walled hut that constitutes the cooking shed and another large circular tent that serves as the dining area. Basic tables that teeter on the bare ground inside, are lined with the ubiquitous plastic chairs that one sees in just about every corner of the world. A man and his son live here in the summers, catering to tourists driving through. They don’t much care about the beautiful surroundings but are quick to crack jokes. Even more jovial was the driver of another van that is stopping here tonight. The drivers know each other and here on out we are to travel convoy-style.

July 11, 2003

The altitude made itself felt in all the usual signs – headache, queasiness and broken sleep. But I have been in places that have a much higher altitude, I thought to myself. The Everest Base camp itself is higher and so was all of Tibet; yet I never felt the altitude then. The trick, I told myself, is to hike up and not drive up, as I continued to guzzle water. We had yet more to climb today; three more passes today, each higher the last.

With each kilometer, the scenery grows more dramatic. It had rained in Sarchu last night and the fresh dusting of snow on the surrounding peaks look like sprinkles of confectionery sugar. The world outside looks like black and white photographs. The switchbacks zigzag up the slopes, the thin black line of the road dwarfed in this immense space. There is more and more military presence. Tanks and trucks crawl by and in narrow ravines, next to the bridges are sandbags with soldiers and rifles in attendance. The soldiers smile and wave as we pass. I remember talking to one of them at a checkpoint and he had called this posting a “hardship” duty. He bemoaned that he still had several months of hardship to endure before he could go home to a more civilized place, naming a town in Bihar. It was astonishing that anyone would voluntarily come here. He thought we were crazy. To many I suppose this would mean hardship, yet something about this kind of place speaks to me. High, desolate and utterly grand, they make me smile. It is difficult to know where to look, so spellbinding is the scenery but the cold ensures we don’t tarry too long on our jaunts outside.

Our  lunchstop today is at Pang. Reminiscent of Darcha, it too is just a collection of shacks serving food and where one simply follows one’s nose to find the toilet. We are higher now with open vistas all around and it is easy to see the traffic a long way ahead. We climb more and more and there it is, the Taglang La. A small temple is festooned with symbols of three religions – the Hindu trident, Buddhist prayer flags and Muslim crescent. A sign proclaims it the place for all religions. A bigger sign with the altitude proudly proclaims it the second highest pass in the world, underscoring it with a quirky “Unbelievable is not it?”

It is all downhill from here until we reach the Leh valley, our driver tells us complacently. We pass a large meadow with yak herds and a tent. Further down, signs of habitation become more frequent. On the banks of the river are fields, greenly lush, bounded by low stone walls. Some are the same eye-popping yellow that I remember from Tibet. And here and there are flat-roofed houses made of packed mud, yet another reminder of Tibet. They even have the same windows, outlined in broad black borders.

Continuing north, we pass the town of Upshi and get our first glimpse of the Indus and the beginning of the Leh valley. Heading west from Upshi, we drive on to Leh. The road is lined with poplars and suddenly we are in the “civilized” world. There are small shops and houses lining the road, groups of schoolchildren on their way to or from school. Gompas perch on craggy hills above with strings of prayer flags draped across poles and crags and walls. Beyond the road, to the south, is the broad long sweep of the valley. The lush green contrasts sharply with the beige-brown of the bare hillsides. After the desolate emptiness of the road, the town of Leh is a mild shock to the system as we grapple with traffic and crowds. My watch reads 3600 m.

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