The Barrens and the Blues: Leh to Manali on Road
“Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. You can spend your life wallowing in despair, wondering why you were the one who was led towards the road strewn with pain, or you can be grateful that you are strong enough to survive it.”
Here’s to a road trip I survived, a 2500+ km road that tested my tenacity, like nothing in life did!
With almost a considerable stretch with no road at all, the journey is literally back-breaking, nauseating at times as you gain height, extremely hot sometimes and biting cold at the very next moment but as the good old saying goes, every good things in life come at a price and Leh Manali Road is no exception. It will break you, tear you, make you sick and you will curse yourself sometimes why you inflict such pain on yourself in a holiday but then it will make you cry in joy, in wonder and you will bless your stars to witness an Inexplicable Beauty this part of Himalayas holds. Its Unreal, Unbelievable to say the least!
It’s not for nothing that it is named as the Mecca of Road Trips and all the hype and blogs that have been written on it across the internet is all worth it. But still every description falls short, adjectives seem inadequate and I dunno if there is a word at all in English Dictionary to describe the Beauty this journey holds, the mystery every hairpin bend unfolds, the warmth that welcomes you at some of the highest food stalls in the middle of nowhere and much more.
After exploring Kargil, Dah Hanu, Alchi, Lamayuru, Nubra for 9 days we started out on this epic road trip for the next 5 days.
Route: Leh – Chang La- Tangste – Pangong Tso – Spangmik – Man – Merak – Khakched – Chusul – Tsagla – Loma – Nyoma – Mahe – Kiagar Tso – Tso Moriri – Tso Kar – Pang – Lachung La – NakeeLa – Sarchu – Baracha La – Jispa – Keylong- Rohtang La – Manali
Leh to Pangong Tso – Gaining altitude
If Leh made you gasp for breath, probably you should not read any further – save yourself the horror or the thrill if you don’t have the heart for it. As you start for the journey to Pangong Tso, bid adieu to the last trace of civilisation that you would be seeing in the coming couple of days.
Out of the multiple routes between Leh and Pangong Tso, we took the route most travelled by – the one via Chang La. The road from Leh to Chang La top is decent, well- paved and rises pretty sharply over quite a few hair pin turns after you have taken the diversion from the Leh-Manali highway. Harleys and REs are a common sight, but you would be amazed to see quite a handful of cyclists on the way, slowly riding through the steepness. The landscape is barren, with the barely-there dried up grass adding it’s own characteristic brownish yellow tint to the mountains. Once you reach Chang La, enjoy the view over a steaming cup of tea.
To many, the most memorable thing to remember in Chang La might probably be the signage proudly declaring it to be the 3rd highest pass in the world. To me, it was the peak that seemed to have come out straight out of the diagrams we used to draw as a kid – the perfect triangle. See for yourself if I have overstated at all.
The road post Chang La, as per a few blogs that we had read earlier, was supposed to be in a decent shape. Unfortunately for us, it was anything but. It looked like there was a road construction going on, probably by the time I am writing this, it has already been completed, but what we had to bear for the next few hours was not at all a happy experience. The bumpy road continue almost upto Tangtse which looked like God had planned this place just to provide some badly needed break (if you aren’t already broken) to folks who have dreaded to take up this journey. Post Tangtse, we had a pretty smooth road that leads all the way upto Pangong. There’s a sudden appearance of vegetation on both sides of the road, and although sparse, it gives the terrain a look much different to what we had been seeing. If you are decently lucky, you should be able to spot a few Marmots like we did – they are super cute and know the art of posing for a photo!!
The first look of something you had been expecting for long is always special – Pangong Tso just topped that list for us! After several bends and turns, with all your battery drained out, and watching with an absolute wonder filled with distaste, a group of young boys shattering the peace of the world with blazing loudspeakers, when all of a sudden you see a tuft of blue something peeping out from behind the mountains in a distance, you just know that all this pain has been worth it. Every penny of it. It looks unreal – like an emerald shining on the fingers of an old woman who has lost the colours of her youth. It starts drawing you towards itself and you can’t just wait anymore to see it in its full expanse.
Although this post is not exactly about Pangong Tso, it won’t harm to soothe your eyes with one more glance at it. There you go.
Pangong Tso to Tso Moriri – The Road That Wasn’t
We had learnt that even a few years back, one couldn’t go to Tso Moriri directly from Pangong Tso but with the rapidly increasing tourist flow in the region, there are roads that have been opened up to connect these two lakes. As we were travelling in an SUV, hence it made sense for us to take the road via Man and Merak to Chushul as not only was it shorter (50 kms) than the other alternative via Lukung, Tangtse and Erath (130 kms), but it also meant that we could stay longer beside the Pangong on our journey and enjoy what was also a more scenic drive.
For a short stretch, upto Merak as far as I remember, there was a well tarred road, although broken or washed away at places by streams that make their way into the Pangong. There are a million camps and tents on either side of this road which makes you pity what tourism is doing to the ecosystem of this place. At this rate, it is only a matter of years before Pangong loses out its colours thanks to the pollution that humanity brings along with it wherever it goes.
Towards the end of the ride along the Pangong, we got to see a look of the Pangong that hasn’t been mentioned on any of the articles we had read about while preparing for the journey. Over here, Pangong, which is otherwise a very calm lake with only ripples disturbing the quiet surface of the water, dishes out waves like a sea to the shores. That’s a rarity that you shouldn’t possibly miss. Notably, the water in this part of the lake is more of grey than blue but like a multi-coloured genius, Pangong just tells you subtly why it is such a uniquely beautiful creation of God.
After this point, we had to take a sharp right as Pangong took a left continuing its journey towards China. To tell you the truth, the pain of losing sight of Pangong only makes your promise to come back, stronger. The road ahead, or well, the lack of road ahead, is just dirt and stones and cacti and a lot of broken beer bottles which tells you that mankind has indeed graced this land before! Miles after miles is the same terrain, with no trace of any human being around. You would definitely come across Indian Army trucks patrolling the area or carrying ration from one camp to another. Save a thought or two for them just to appreciate how they survive here for days at a stretch, away from families, away from mankind at large.
The road to Tsaga via Chusul and Rezang La War Memorial is pretty much consistent – so I won’t go into the details of that. Do make it a point to visit the Rezang La War Memorial to pay a tribute to the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives during the Indo-China war. You can also see from a distance the point which is one of the official interaction point between the Indian and the Chinese forces regarding matters of the border.
As you seem to have lost track of the time since when you last saw a piece of tarred road, it suddenly makes a magical appearance at Tsaga, where you also have to register yourself at the check post. The stretch of this sudden found comfort in the form of a ride over a tarred road continues upto Loma much to our satisfaction. After registering at the check post at Loma, take the right to travel upto Mahe via Nyoma which is more or less a comfortable ride with broken stretches recurring often. In case you have an eye for details, you would definitely notice the black spots on the mountains which when looked at closely, reveals that they are army bunkers from where the army maintains a strict vigil on the mountains and the valley at large.
Note: There was a shorter route from Chusul to Mahe that cuts the journey by around 40 kms but then we were diverted by the army from that point, probably because it was not fit for driving at that moment.
From Mahe, we started for a break-less journey towards Tso Moriri via Sumdo, where we had to register again at a checkpost, and Namashang La, a pass that doesn’t really look like one after you’ve seen the likes of Chang La or Kardung La. There’s no road again and all that the driver had to follow was a track made of marks left by earlier vehicles. After a while, a green water body, shining like a emerald and bordered with a distinct white line, suddenly made an appearance. Expecting the Tso Moriri, we were just bowled over by its colour and upon asking our driver if this was the Tso Moriri, with a twisted smile, he nodded affirmatively. There was a doubt, and a bit of despair that the famous Tso Moriri was actually this small but we tried to brighten ourselves up with the wonderful colour it had. Thankfully, the joke didn’t last long and once we reached the actual Tso Moriri, we got to know that the one we had left behind was actually the Kyagar Tso.
Do make it a point to stop by the point where you get the first glance of Tso Moriri. There’s a swampy land by the lake where you should be able to spot a lot of Bramhini ducks and Black Necked cranes. Don’t disappoint yourself by the greyish colour of the Tso Moriri over here, it is only because of the swamp that makes it murkier.
The Tso-s deserve a separate post and not just a one-liner. Till the time it’s ready, read,I manage to write about them, here’s a treat for you for reading up till this point:
Tso Moriri to Manali – Changing terrains, back to the land of familiar landscapes
Tso Moriri to Manali is a VERY VERY long journey so do not attempt to cover it in a single day unless and until you have taken it up as a challenge to show off to the world. If you are a normal human being, it makes sense to travel upto Jispa or if you can really drag yourself through the inertia of an already tiresome journey for a few more miles, put up at Keylong. This journey is about 10 – 11 hours and the fewer breaks you take, the better, trust me. Which is why – this is difficult, very very difficult if you are not made for long trips. Read on if you think you can make it.
The journey from Tso Moriri has to start early into the morning, preferably by 6-6:30. We crossed Kiagar Tso again on our way back and within an hour, reached Tso Kar as well. Tso Kar is rightly called the White Lake and you can visibly see why it is so different from the other lakes around. The high volume of salt deposits around the lake gives it a wonderfully distinctive appearance and is definitely Insta-worthy! Little after Tso Kar, we crossed the Thukje monastery perched on the top of a hill, as if looking over the Tso Kar like a guardian angel. We had to give it a miss as we knew we had a long road to cover but if you are putting up at Tso Kar for the day, you should definitely pay this a visit. Do let me know how it looks like from up there.
In about close to 5 hours, we reached Pang. There’s not much to write about this road as like the usuals, it’s filled with its own share of ‘ah’s and the ‘wow’s. Every terrain seems like it’s in a constant competition with its neighbours in trying to woo you with its uniqueness and all that you can do apart from endlessly shooting with your cameras is, lose yourself to the awe that it is. A break from this monotony of beauty is needed and the handful of tea shops at Pang are ready to cater to your refreshment needs.
Once we started from Pang, we had to bear with a pretty bad stretch of dusty road as there was a road construction going on. Today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain – so no fuss about that. As we were about to doze off, we thought we saw something which didn’t register to be true at the first glance – like, you know, a Mercedes on Mars, or a submarine on the sand dunes of Sahara, or a cycle-rickshaw on the roads of Ladakh – wait!! That’s exactly what we were seeing – a cycle-rickshaw on the roads of Ladakh, the same roads that we were covering on a 4×4!!! We stopped immediately and jumped out of the car – this was something that could not be missed. It looked like the rickshaw had been put there as a showpiece to entertain the passers by. But when an all smiles guy emerged from the tent beside it, we knew that that was not the case. It turned out that he, Satyen Das, a cycle-rickshaw puller by profession, had cycled all the way from Calcutta to cover Ladakh all the way upto Turtuk in his cycle-rickshaw. He had been pitching up his tent wherever he managed to reach by night and had only the bare minimum things he needed to survive on the trip. The tiredness of the journey was not to be found on his face, and the smile he adorned all the while, made us remember a lesson we’ve all heard a thousand times in our lives, but probably not taken too seriously – “Nothing is impossible”. Yes – there were people with genuine trust in his abilities, sponsoring his trip, yes – he was pretty cool to have a Facebook handle and an email ID, contrary to his ragged looks, yes – he was already a small celebrity back in Bengal. But beyond all of this, this was a man of indomitable spirit who either had a point to prove to someone or had just casually thought of following what his heart wanted and set out on a journey like this, just like that. No lesser than the landscapes of Ladakh, Satyen was a marvellous experience, probably defining what miracles are made up of!
After about another 2 hours of bumpy ride through the highest passes of the world, unreal landscapes, passing frequent sights of cyclists and wondering how our fitness levels have gone for a toss, and more of ah’s and wow’s, we cross the borders of Ladakh to step to Himachal. And at a blink of an eye, the landscape changed to the familiar Himalayas we are use to see. The green Himalayas, the fresh Himalayas. But to our eyes, Himalayas had also shrunked in size, after 16 days of Himalayas that’s unbelievably expansive, seemed as if it suddenly has become small. Blame it on our eyes that just got used to see the Himalayas so so vast and expansive.
As we approached Manali, it felt as if I have woken up from a dream. A dream that was too beautiful to be true but alas it was true and you thank your stars and the universe that conspired to have made you live through this unreal journey! This was combined with pangs of sadness, an inexplicable one – that the Ladakh trip had ended! The feeling of being in an unearthly place, the very special feeling of meeting the people that we did, all that was now just a memory. But then, we knew in our hearts that we have to come back, that once Ladakh touches you, you cannot stay away for long. It’s a promise that we made, a promise that has to be kept!!
Where we Stayed:
2 Nights at Pangong Tso: Courtesy 3 idiots, there is innumerable tents and 3 idiots cafe along the Pangong! You are spoilt for choices! I personally would not suggest the Spangmik side of Ladakh for the stay, since I felt is over crowded with tents. The other side is better. Where we stayed: Highland Camp, Pangong. But trust me its all the same with basic amenities enough to survive as much as is possible at that altitude.
1 Night at Tso Moriri: Personally the Tso Moriri stay was the most expensive and hence it better be the best. We stayed at Tso Moriri Camp and Resorts . There are again ample of tents available but all are a bit expensive on pocket if you are budget traveler like us. There are grounds where we saw tents pitched by backpackers. Not really sure about the permissions.
1 Night at Keylong: A budget but decent hotel right on the way to Manali highway since we just needed a place to crash in.
Quick Tips for Healthy Journey:
- This is high altitude region and it is not uncommon for people to experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness and nausea even if you are pro in road trip on the plains. Pop the most commonly used tablet diamox in case you have an altitude sickness.
- Keep yourself hydrated, even if you are not thirsty. And keep dry food handy as you might find food stalls rarely.
- Carry woolens, you probably wont need it inside the car with the glass pulled up and the sun shining but of course you will feel a biting chill right when you step out of the car for striking a pose.
- But above everything else, all you need to survive this journey is your determination, grit and enthusiasm and big wide smile which you wear as if nothing can break you. I personally survived without a single medicine and with a budle of enthusiasm 🙂
Disclaimer: The journey is not for the faint hearted, it’s not for comfort travelers and definitely not for finicky type of tourists expecting a proper “meal” and a “clean Western toilet” type! I write this para with great anger and sadness since I have met such people on the road cribbing and misbehaving with locals just because they don’t have “amenities” in their little restaurants or tea shop. They hardly even try to understand the hardships locals face to sustain at such altitude. Be a sport, embrace what the road gifts you and trust me there isn’t a better road trip India offers!