Leh-Manali Highway - End of the Great Indian Roadtrip

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

No great story started with someone eating a salad...

It started with someone drinking a beer! And if the beer is called Godfather Super Strong High Power beer - GOD save you!!!

Let's rewind to where I had left off in the last post : Tso Moriri - The Road Less Traveled.

Day 12, 10th July 2014, Thursday : We were heading out of Ladakh after 11 days of ultimate adventure. My plan of Ladakh full circuit roadtrip - which was jinxed for the last 3 years, delayed right at the start on Srinagar-Leh Highway due to pass preference given to Amarnath Yatris, and almost screwed due to a dangerous landslide while ascending Khardung La - had finally reached its last leg! 

One of our luggage started acting weird soon after we left Tso Moriri. When we were off-roading, it decided to slide down couple of times. May be it wanted to tell us that this was going to be quite a bumpy ride - metaphorically.

As we backtracked, we passed by the beautiful azure blue Kyagar Tso again. Just before the Mahe bridge, we took the left turn at the diversion, crossed the Puga hotsprings on the way and after few more Kms of drive, reached Tso Kar. 

Tso Kar is a landlocked salt lake. The whites on Tso Kar's shore isn't snow; it is salt flat formed due to the immense amount of salts and borax that get deposited on the banks of the lake.
Top: Tso Kar; Bottom left : A Kiang or a Tibetan wild ass; Bottom right : Road to Tso Kar

Like Tso Moriri, Tso Kar too has a lot of wildlife, grazing or scuttling around. We spotted couple of Kiangs or Tibetan Wild Ass, wild horses and cute marmots. Except for Gandalf's horse, none of the other animals agreed to pose for my camera. They just ran away! Mr. Tibetan Wild Ass, was particularly arrogant.  He just turned up his nose and walked away!!! (Check the picture below if you don't believe me!)

When we spotted a dhaba at Tso Kar, we decided to enquire about beer. We were so close to success and that definitely called for celebration! The dhaba (or rather that makeshift camp) had only one brand called the Godfather Super Strong High Power beer. Never heard of it before, but since that was the only option available in that remote land, we said 'let's do it' and stocked as many Godfathers as the extra spaces in the car could hold. 

By the time we reached the diversion before Debring, the beer had started to show its super strong effect. At the junction just before Debring, we changed cars - from J&K plated to HP plated one. In my inebriated state, it felt like I was being smuggled somewhere I didn't want to go. I would have felt the same if I were sober. I didn't want to leave Ladakh. We bid adieu to Sonam ji here, who had been like a constant companion during our days in Ladakh.

The Tso Kar plan and the resulting detour made us miss Taglang La. This pass at 17582 feet above sea level is claimed to be world's second highest motorable pass. You would pass it if you take the route from Upshi to Debring. Here is the route that we followed to reach Sarchu -

                                                                                      Map data : Google

When was the last time you heard about someone passing out on the Moore Plains after just one and a half bottle of beer?? Nice to meet you too!!! ;-)

If truth be told, I did not dare pass out on this beloved terrain of all adventurers

Let me explain Moore Plains to you - my favourite part of this highway. Flanked by mountains on both sides, it is not unfathomable why this vast stretch of plain is a big hit with bikers or whoever passes through it. 40 Kms of plain stretch at a height of 15,400 ft. By plain, I mean stark plain - no trees, nothing; except for the flanking mountains at a distance. In midst of this raw beauty, runs a tar road which looks as if it has been laid just yesterday. This is probably the only place in the Himalayas where you can touch 100 kmph and still be alive. Accelerate as much as you want, leave a trail of dust behind you - nature's dust, not the exhaust of your vehicle.

I finally passed out on a khatiya inside a makeshift dhaba at Pang, where we had stopped for some refreshments. 

Top Left: Raising a toast to Ladakh; Bottom left : Driving through Moore Plains;
Top Right : Changing cars at the junction (Check bottom right for location of the junction)

The stretch after this was a blur for me. We didn't stop at the next two passes - Lachulung La and Nakee La. It was at the Gata Loops that the what-goes-in-must-come-out pressure kicked in. Due to the stories of the Ghost of the Gata loops, our new driver refused to stop the car as we traversed through the 21 loops one by one. Instead, he told us this story -

Many years ago, during the start of winters, a truck carrying two travelers had broken down on one of the bends. It was moving towards Leh and was the last truck to pass Rohtang Pass before the pass closed due to heavy snow. Since the driver knew no vehicle would pass them, he decided to walk to the nearest village to get help. The cleaner stayed back since the truck was loaded with cargo and couldn’t be abandoned. After walking for miles, when the driver did arrive at the village, he couldn’t find a single mechanic. While he was at the village, the weather closed in due to heavy snowfall, thus trapping him there. When the weather finally cleared after several days and help arrived from Manali, they hurried back to where the truck was stranded, only to find that the poor cleaner had died of thirst, hunger and exposure to extreme cold. The body of the cleaner is buried at the same spot on the Gata Loops where the truck had broken down.

From the time the highway opened next year till today, many travelers claim to have met a man begging for water. Those who did offer him water saw the bottles drop right through the man’s hand. Scary right? ;) To appease the thirsty ghost, the locals built a small memorial on the cleaner’s grave, and people till date leave sealed bottles of water there. 

On one of the loops, we did spot the memorial and the pile of Bisleri bottles near it. As the beer pressure increased, I was struck by a greater fear than the fear of a water thirsty ghost. I thought "This is a naked landscape and I am not a man!" By the time, our driver stopped the car near an abandoned structure in the middle of nowhere, adrenaline had kicked in so much that all effects of beer was foregone. 
Top left : Lachulung La; Bottom left : Nakee La; Top right : Gata Loops; Bottom right : Sarchu
At Sarchu, my alpha mode kicked back in as we were posed with another tough decision. My plan was to stay the night at Sarchu. The idea of camping at this altitude with tall mountains surrounding us, inebriated me more than any high power beer. But I was not the only one hit with the effects of that beer (I can tell, you thought so!!) We were tired, exhausted and already started to get a hangover. I took the call to move ahead towards Jispa after I had a conversation with a group of bikers who advised us against staying at Sarchu. If not for the hangover, I knew we were acclimatized enough to stay at Sarchu after almost 2 weeks in Ladakh. As we crossed Sarchu, we finally left the realms of Ladakh and entered Himachal Pradesh.

We passed Baralacha La after Sarchu. I had heard tales of people getting hit by AMS at this pass, but we remained unaffected in spite of taking a few minutes break there. I guess AMS at Baralacha La mostly hits people who are ascending towards Leh through this highway. 

Map Data : Google

We then passed Suraj Tal - a beautiful emerald colored lake at the base of Baralacha La, considered sacred as it literally translates into 'Lake of the Sun God'. The lake is also the source of the Bhaga river which joins the Chandra river near Tandi and forms the Chandrabhaga river. 

The drive from here to Zingzingbar was one of the worst, with gushing glacial melts running through the almost non-existent road. Driving through those forceful streams had high chances of turning disastrous, but we somehow had luck on our side.

As we entered Jispa, we said "That's it!" We hunted around and decided to check-in at Hotel Ibex, facing the Bhaga river. The view from our rooms - the snow capped mountain glowing in the light of the waxing moon and the moonlight reflecting waters of the river - was bewitching. 

Top right: Baralacha La; Bottom right: Suraj Taal;
Left : View of the moon, mountain and the Bhaga river from the balcony at Hotel Ibex
Day 13, July 11, 2014, Friday : The view we woke up to was 'Green'! It was a refreshing change after the ruthless landscape of Ladakh. It was the cue that we had finally passed into the Lahaul valley. The Bhaga river that was glistening in the moonlight the previous night, actually had a muddy color to it. We left as soon as breakfast was done. From Jispa to Keylong, the district headquarter of Lahaul & Spiti valley, is a short ride of 35 Km. 

Bottom left : Temporary camps at Pang; Top (left & right) : View from Hotel Ibex, Jispa, Bottom right : Keylong

We stopped to refuel at a petrol pump at Tandi, the only petrol pump on the Leh-Manali Highway. At Tandi, one crosses the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga river. 

As legend goes, Chandra - the daughter of moon and Bhaga - the son of Sun, were in love with each other and it was at this place that they were finally united. Over the course, the same river Chandrabhaga is known as Chenab as it passes from the Jammu region into Punjab. May be it is by mere co-incident that this river of love has some role to play in most epic love stories of Punjab like the Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban. We'll never know...

As we cross the bridge near the confluence, we enter the Chandra valley. The first village we pass is Sissu, a beautiful green village with a spectacular waterfall. Then comes the villages of Kokhsar and Gramphu. 

Top Left : Tandi bridge; Top Right : Tandi petrol pump; Bottom Left : Sissu; Bottom Right : Gramphu diversion

From Gramphu, the left road leads to the Spiti valley - another dream of mine. But for now, we take the right road and with that our ascend to Rohtang Pass starts. 

Rohtang Pass was crowded with vacationers. The crowd and the noise were like an instant turn off, as if they were saying "Welcome back to Civilization". If Rohtang Pass did that to me, I freaked out to think what Mumbai would.

From Rohtang La, the descend towards Manali, via Marhi, is a steady descend. We passed dozens of paragliders at Marhi and if we were not dead tired, we would have gladly joined them. At Manali, we checked into one of the HPTDC Log Huts, nestled in the woods away from the market area. After a night and a day in Manali, we were to head back to our respective maddening cities. 

Top: Ascending and descending Rohtang Pass; Centre: Paragliding at Marhi & US :)
Bottom left : HPTDC Log Huts, Manali; Bottom right: Hadimba temple, Manali

I had traveled around Switzerland a year back and the memories are still fresh. If Switzerland's matchless landscape is to be compared to a queen's beauty, Ladakh, at the roof of the world, stands as the King of all landscapes - ruthless, magnanimous and yet so handsome! If Ladakh doesn't break your heart open, you are just not human enough. 

This is the last in a series of 7 posts documenting 14 days of our travel to Ladakh. You can also read:

Day 1 to Day 3: NH 1D - From Srinagar to Leh
Day 4: How I Got Leh'd - Conquering the 'Top of Leh'!
Day 5 & 6: On the Silk Route to Heaven - To Nubra Valley, via Khardung La - a part of the ancient Silk Route, to witness an unparalleled combo of nature - Mountains, Deserts and River, all in one place.
Day 7 & 8: Speechless at Pangong - A love story...
Day 9: 3 Reasons You Should Skip Hemis Festival
Day 10: 
'Dolce Far Niente'... A Buffer day spent in Leh.

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  1. Lovely! The story of the helper is so sad. Does anyone remember his name?