I went to Ladakh last October to recharge my batteries. To my utter surprise, the trip more than replenished my sense of waning cosmic consciousness. It was a soul stirring experience, reaffirming my belief that it is impossible to overcome the lure and fascination of the Himalayas if you love mountains. From Manali itself, the breath-taking views at every turn of the Manali-Leh highway imprint images in the mind that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
The roads in Ladakh varies wildly, from bumpy asphalt to dirt tracks sliced by glacial streams. This 485 km journey along different river valleys took me some 24 hours with an overnight stay at Keylong. It is the district headquarters of Lahaul valley in Himachal and uniquely perched atop a steep valley at the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers at a height of 3,200 metres.
We started our journey from Keylong to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, at the ungodly time of 5am, or is that indeed the time of the gods. Had chai at the bus stand from a Lahauli lady, who couldn’t stop giggling at us and made us feel like ALIENS. The journey was one of the most memorable of all my trips to the Himalayas. As the road runs across the slopes of the Bhaga valley, you see towering peaks and hanging glaciers. Beyond Keylong, the Bhaga valley broadens. Initially our constant companion was the meandering Bhaga river. The view of the Bhaga river against the backdrop of the towering peaks was jaw dropping. Had to almost pinch myself to come to terms with the sheer grandeur of the whole setting. Our bus stopped at Darcha for lunch. A hot bowl of Tibetan thupka from a roadside dhaba satiated our taste buds.
From Darcha, the road climbs steadily along the mountain side of wine-red and pale-green scenery to Zingzing Bar. I was seriously misled by the name and started enquiring about the possibilities to get a little tipsy as I was feeling exhausted and some fuel in the tank would have made the rest of my journey easier. To my utter disappointment the place was all Zing without a bar. As we moved from this desolate land, we approached Baralacha La, which blows your mind. The pass forms the head of three valleys, the Bhaga, the Chandra, and the Yunan.
Then we headed to Pang from Sarchu, which is situated at a height of 4,500 metres. 3 km from Pang is the extraordinary Moray Plains, a 45-kilometre-long stretch of flat land encircled by rolling hills and brilliant white Himalayan peaks. This flat land is almost as smooth as a billiards table and to see a landscape of this nature at this height is incredible. Mother nature at its pristine best. worked.
The road starts its ascent from Dibring Camp to Tanglang La which is at a head-spinning height of 5,328m. It is the second highest pass in the world and people tend to have some breathing problem because of altitude-sickness. We stopped there for about 15 minutes to take pictures and against everyone’s advice I decided to venture around in a T-shirt. Thankfully I did not get sick but felt a little breathless as I walked around. The Karakoram range of the Himalayas, visible from here signalled that we were approaching Ladakh. This road beyond Tanglang La goes along our age-old Indus (Sindhu) valley. Sindhu is the river which was the lifeline of India for thousands of years. It fed the Indus Valley civilization, which is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I felt a bit overwhelmed at the sight of this great river. It was like a dream come true for me.
The gateway to Ladakh is Upshi. This is where Himank, the project for constructing and maintaining the Manali-Leh highway, undertaken by the Indian army concludes. Considering the terrain, maintaining this road is a Herculean task. Our army needs to be complimented for maintaining this road, which serves as a lifeline to Ladakh. I would compliment them for their creativity too and would never forget a roadside signage which read “Hold your Nerves, Curvaceous Bend Ahead”. Unfortunately in real life such situations are rare.
On the way from Upshi to Leh there are high peaks crowned with village houses and gompas or Buddhist monasteries, made of local stone. The rock formations enroute is intimidating and flabbergasting. Never in my life had I seen such desolate valleys displaying such shades of colours. As we neared Leh, the first impression was that it was a desert with green patches fed by the Indus. One of the first things we noticed were the prayer wheels with ringing bells.
By the time we reached Leh it was almost 7 pm and getting accommodation was the foremost thing on our minds. From the bus stand we walked upto Upper Changspa, a small village near the famous Shanti Stupa. We checked into a decent guest house, incredibly priced at Rs 500 for a double room. (Wall to wall carpet and hot water). Had pasta for dinner at an open air restaurant and retired early to bed for a well deserved sleep. Thus ended one of the most eventful days of my traveling experiences.