Warning: This trip is addictive as well as dangerous. Once you have taken this trip, you will never be the same again. And the mountains will haunt you. Its sheer magnitude, beauty and silence and their simple inhabitants will either make you feel one with nature, bring you face to face with your own insignificance or you will go back disturbed at its barrenness and the harshness of life. Either way, things were just going to change.
And we started
Our days were mundane, something anyone could relate to. Driving zombie like to the office through unending traffic, cloistered inside air conditioned vehicles, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the noise and the pollution outside, and end up working listlessly in the cubbyholes. On that special day, while, many were still looking out longingly from their windows and dream of adventures inside their head and think 'someday maybe', we were on our way to making our dreams turn to reality. The next 23 days would see the fruition of days of planning. We were thrilled about our trip. We start at the begining.
We are a group of friends who have known each other for the past 20 years, and have been together through thick and thin. Even though we do not stay close by, we have been in touch and made it a point to meet up every year. In 2014, we met up at Goa, and it was then that we thought of driving to Leh to celebrate two decades of our friendship. It was an instant Aye by everyone, we finalised the dates, applied for leaves. We knew that since it would be a long drive, not many could make it. Finally seven of us made it and we met up two of our friends on the way.
The planning phase
The planning started 6 months before the trip. I had been on this road in 2007 and had a basic idea of what to expect. We split responsibilities. I came up with a very exhaustive list of all items to be taken along; vehicle check list, food, medicines, and precautions to be taken. About a fortnight before the trip, we did continuous monitoring of the road conditions. We decided to take two vehicles. An XUV 500 and an Ecosport. Since we were in different parts of the country we decided that one vehicle would start from Bengaluru and the other from Mumbai. Everyone would join in and drive on.
The route decided was – Bengaluru – Mumbai – Jaipur – Udhampur – Srinagar – Kargil – Leh – Keylong – Gramphoo – Kaza – Rampur – Jaipur – Mumbai – Bengaluru.
As the day of reckoning came closer, landslides and cloudbursts hit the Srinagar-Leh Highway washing away parts of the road. The Mumbai-Pune Express Highway closed down due to a landslide. But these did not deter us. We had a plan B. Our families were worried, but since we were determined to go, they started praying for our safety instead.
On the road
We started from Bengaluru on D day and had to hit Nashik through bad roads as the Mumbai – Pune Expressway was temporarily closed. The drive from Nashik towards Gujrat till we hit the GQ was again very bad and it took us 21 hours to reach Jaipur.
The trip had just started and we had already done 21 hour drives each on the first two days. In retrospect, we learned that we did the right thing by covering the distances in good roads, allowing us enough time to stick to an itenary when we the roads vanish into gravel paths. We started late the next day and planned to hit Udhampur by night but as we neared Chandigarh, our friend in Dras passed on a message that the road had again been washed away somewhere before Zoji La. We got into a huddle and decided on Plan B, which was, to go in through Lahaul & Spiti route. On the flipside, no one had traveled on this route before and according to Google maps, it would take two days to hit Gramphoo/ Keylong and get into the Manali – Leh road.
Plan B – Bengaluru – Mumbai – Jaipur – Chandigarh – Kasauli – Theog – Rampur – Kaza – Keylong – Sarchu – Leh – Dras – Srinagar – Behror – Jaipur – Mumbai – Bengaluru.
Murphy's Law at play
We turned our vehicles towards Chandigarh and Kasauli, hoping to stay over at Rampur. From day one we have been encountering Murphy's Law. It is funny how the best made plans don't work once you start driving. At one point it looked like the formula from the book 'The Secret' was working on us inversely – "when friends go on a long road trip, the whole world conspires to derail it."
The exhaustive research and alternate plans that we had made before we started stood us in good stead. Keeping our basic plan flexible also worked. The original plan was to hit Rampur from Jaipur. However, we could only manage to hit Kasauli and thankfully my friend AG had taken his responsibility of coming up with a list of hotels and home stays all along the route with phone numbers seriously. We had a good night's rest and planned to start early and reach somewhere between Rampur and Kaza next day. Tall hopes. We were to find out soon.
Life in the high lands
We decided not to take the crowded Shimla route and took the Kufri - Theog route. The mountains had started and we took photography breaks which we had not accounted for in our time plan. The route was breathtakingly beautiful, winding through picturesque valleys and villages. It gave us our first glimpse of life in the highlands. The one thing we found throughout our drive through Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti was the simplicity of the people, untarnished by the consumerism of the city. We were surprised to find bottled water being sold at MRP in those remote villages with food that was economically priced.
The drive from Kasauli was unremarkable but for the breathtaking scenery all around. Having driven on smooth highways till now, we were cursing the potholes and broken down stretches of the road. Little did we know of what lay ahead of us in the coming days. We reached Rampur at 22:00 hrs and checked into the comfortable Hotel 'Bushahr Residency'. Our bodies by now were getting used to the continuous driving, averaging 16 hours a day.
Altitude and mountain sickness
The roads till Rampur were good, in retrospect. We left Rampur at 05:30 hrs the next morning after tanking up on fuel and hoping to reach Kaza. Within a short time we got into a gravel path and with speeds limited to 30 kmph, we were literally crawling. Our off-roading dreams were about to come true and our estimates of time and distance- shattered again. It took us approximately 17 hours to traverse the next 190 kilometers. The only thing that kept us going was the company of friends and the breathtakingly rugged scenery.
As we entered Spiti, the trees and the greenery started to vanish and bare, brown mountains started to appear and the first effects of altitude began to manifest with mild headaches in a couple of us. We drank lots of water and it was back to normal. In the evening, a couple of friends had to take medication to prevent any further mountain sickness.
It was evening. We had just about done slightly over 100 kms since morning and were sure that we would not be able to make it to Kaza by night. We planned to rest wherever we reach by night. The gravel path was treacherous to say the least and the vehicles were taking a hit. The XUV had its sump guard in tatters. The Ecosport had taken a hit from a flying stone ending up with a cracked wind shield. There also was a perceptible loss of power, though nothing alarming. At one place, along the route we heard a loud noise and came face to face with a fresh landslide blocking the road immediately in front of us. We waited for about 4 hours for the landslide to be cleared. The next viable place to spend the night seemed to be Nako.
Stopover at Nako
We reached Nako at around 2230 hrs. We were relieved as we drove into the village square through a small track which could barely accommodate one vehicle. We were pleasantly surprised to find a couple of foreigners and two hardened old Indian roadsters. We were also surprised to find a more than decent hotel and an amazingly helpful staff.
Nako, at first sight is not a place people making trip itineraries sitting in their living rooms and fed on Google maps, plan for. It's only when the harsh reality of the road condition hits travelers that they notice Nako and think of stopping over. The three or four decent places (including a tented accommodation overlooking Nako Lake) to stay there bear testimony to the fact that many travelers do stop here. But Nako will steal your heart. The helpful people, a view to die for and the simplicity of Nako made us wish we could visit it once more.
In the morning we took a short walk to Nako Lake. It was more like a pond, beautiful and untouched pollution. We sat on its bank watching the unhurried life of the village folks unfolding around us and marveled at their utter simplicity of living. We visited the Nako Monastery and on our return were happy to find our dust laden vehicles washed and gleaming in the morning sun. We drove off.
The landscape from Nako was surreal, in a very harsh way. Barren, windswept, wind chiseled mountains on all sides with small tracks winding through them, around them and with them. Border Roads organization does a good job in keeping these roads serviceable. With frequent landslides, cloud bursts and flying stones, it's a blessing that BRO is able to keep the route motorable. Our hearts went out to all those workmen who sweat round the clock so that travelers like us can experience this beauty.
The lure of the mountains
As the sun rose, the play of shadows and sunlight put forth a show of colors and hues we had never seen before. It captivates you, enthralls you and nudges you to slow down, to sit still and contemplate the beauty and unhurried life. By now we had given up all plans of reaching Leh as per our original plans. We gave in to the beauty and lure of the mountains and decided to stop wherever we reached by evening. We would stop frequently for photography and playful banter.
With the dust in our hair and eyes, we were figuratively one with the mountains too. High altitude can have disastrous effect on the human body if care is not taken to acclimatize properly. We found that many of us were not drinking enough water. That's when we decided to ration water every day with instructions to finish a certain amount by the end of day. GV was in charge of ensuring it and he did his job with a single minded dedication. Anyway, by now all illusions of our infallibility was beginning to wear thin and we were much more receptive to the road sign put up by BRO – 'Don't be a Gama in the land of Lama'.
We often wondered how people survive in these altitudes and barrenness. There is a Ladhaki saying – "..A land so barren and passes so high, that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us". We couldn't agree more. With the roads closed for the major part of the year, it's a harsh life. Either you move to a more hospitable terrain or stock up for winter or perish. The villages and places to eat are far and in between and it is advisable to carry some eatables, nuts etc with you. Food was available at all the places at very reasonable rates though.
When we left Nako, we had planned to spend the night at Key (Ki) Monastery, based on the recommendation of the old roadster we met in Nako. Key monastery, established in the 11th century, is approximately 12 kms from Kaza, perched on top of a hill. We tanked up on fuel and also took some spare fuel from the Indian Oil pump in Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti, with a sign proclaiming the pump to be the highest retail outlet at 12270 ft.
We reached the monastery only to find that there were no spare rooms due to a function next day. We decided to head for Kibber, which at 14200ft, was once the highest inhabited village in the world, a title which now has been taken over by Komic village, situated nearby. The nip in the wind accentuated the cold weather. We were somehow able to find an accommodation, which was decent, and served basic food. Cell phones had long since stopped working except BSNL postpaid which would come on randomly.
Acclimatization – a crash course
We had a late start. By then, we had ditched the printed Google map directions that we were carrying for the good old physical maps of Himachal Tourism. We now aimed to reach Chandrataal. The drive from Kibber was awesome especially the Batal - Chandratal road. The road bifurcates from Batal towards Chandratal (approx 10 km) after crossing Kunzum La. Surrounded by snow capped peaks and inviting grasslands, this deep blue lake with a circumferences of 2.5 km is nothing but surreal.
Legend has it that God Indra's chariot picked up Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers from this lake. We did a parikrama of the lake and as the mountain peaks showed itself towards the end of the lake with the setting sun bathing the peaks in a golden hue, some of us couldn't stop the tears of pure joy flowing down our cheeks. That's what the surreal beauty of Chandratal does to you and we were immensely grateful to have made a stop here.
As darkness set in, we walked back in silence to our vehicles and started back to the camping grounds and put up our tents with help from fellow campers. We cooked a basic meal and went to sleep dreaming of the pristine beauty that we all had the good fortune to experience. At close to 14500ft Chandratal is not a place you would want to spend the night in the open unless you are well acclimatized. Even though we were moderately acclimatized and also had spent a night at Kibber, a couple of us still felt dizzy with headaches and tiredness. Thankfully things did not turn bad. It is not recommended to sleep at high altitudes without acclimatization. This was turning out to be a crash course in high altitude acclimatization for us and we were enjoying this 'on the job training'. We were also learning that on these roads distances did not matter and was rather measured in hours.
Next stop was Keylong, but before that we had to pass through some treacherous water crossings. We left Chandratal at 0630Am so as to be able to negotiate the water crossings before noon when the snow melts and water level increases. Despite that our vehicles got stuck crossing the stream between Chota dhara and Chhatru and had to be pushed out. Having a high ground clearance helps as it is difficult to gauge the depth due to the flowing water. A new learning. By late noon we said goodbye to the route and joined the Manali – Leh highway at Gramphoo. The roads were better. It was after 5 days that we were seeing a tarred road. Nearing Sissu, the roads became much better and we could cruise along. The scenery also changed from the desolate brown deserts to the green of poplars and willows as we neared Keylong. We were struck with the contrast between the two valleys.
Spiti was barren with towering mountains and treacherous roads snaking through the valleys. Landslides and kilometers of roads washed away were common sights. The fury of Spiti and Sutlej River complimented the starkness and harshness of the terrain with an average elevation of approximately 14000ft. In contrast, Lahaul valley was more subdued and green and looked like it had a higher density of population. The simplicity, customs and myths of these simple unsophisticated people touched a chord in our hearts.
We refueled at Tandi, the last fuel bunk before Leh reaching Keylong by 1730 hrs and booked ourselves into hotel Chandrabhaga. The roads were comparatively good with fair amount of traffic on the highway, with motorcyclists, bicyclists and a hoard of tourists driving towards Leh. Being the district headquarters of Lahaul, Keylong is the last town (if we can call it that) before Leh.
We decided to hit Leh next day and started at 0430 am. Locals put the ride to Leh at 14 hrs. Enlightened by our previous experience, we gave ourselves 18 hours and decided to give it a shot. The road was decent compared to what we had gone through till now. The scenery was back to being barren with the road snaking through wind chiseled, majestic mountains. This drive is what has made the drive to Leh so popular (though we think that the drive through Lahaul and Spiti is as wonderful, if not better) for travellers. We wondered what it is with mountains and treacherous roads that beckon travelers on this pilgrimage. It was the call of the wild, of doing something out of our daily rut, of communing with the windswept mountains in its raw beauty and harshness, of dusty tracks, of pushing ourselves and our machines, of beautiful monasteries and hamlets perched high up on impossible mountains, of photographs and last but not the least, of bragging rights and the satisfaction of having completed this treacherous ride.
We travelled quietly, with occasional waves and cheers of the various cyclists on the road. The scenery is much more mesmerizing than the various photographs will have you believe. It leaves you speechless most of the time. Now as we climbed Barla-cha La, we could see amazing snow clad mountains on all sides. By now we had stopped taking photos and were drinking in the surroundings with our eyes and heart. As we were just about to reach Barla-cha La top, KM noticed a strange noise coming from the car, fearing the worst we stopped and climbed outside to find a punctured front tyre. The outside temp showed zero degree Celsius and the height was 14500 ft. Well, we did what everybody does in such a situation. Get to work and change the tyre, our hands and eyes stinging from the cold wind. "Highest tyre puncture and highest tyre change in the coldest temperature in our life" declared KM as we sat back inside our car. We laughed and thanked the mountain Gods. It could have been worse.
Barla-cha La is one of the most beautiful passes with a smooth tarmac road and it would be difficult not to stop here and contemplate the mountains around. We encountered a few nullas before Barla-ch La and also immediately after it and the water levels increase post noon, making crossing difficult. We hit Sarchu and then Pang after driving through some treacherous stretches. Crossing 'Killing Sarai' was really killing where we had to spend an hour waiting while the BRO bulldozers cleared the last remnants of a recent landslide from the road.
We crossed the famous Gata Loops just before Nakee La Pass. The 21 hair pin bends of Gata loops look mesmerizing from far and is one of the most photographed part of the route. We were intrigued by a curious dump of water bottles at one place. Later we came to know that it's a memorial for the Ghost of Gata loops. The story; he was a truck cleaner who had stayed back with his broken down truck while the driver went to get help and died of thirst and cold. The Ghost, people say, asks passers by for water and these bottles have been left here as a tribute to this soul. Our photography breaks and the road condition had slowed us down. We took a break at Pang and then the treacherous mountains morphed into a verdant, huge, plain valley. The immensity of the flat valley makes you look so tiny, like a mere dot.
We were on the famed 'More Plains', a flat valley with a stretch of awesome tarmac road for more than 40 kms. We floored the accelerator hoping to cover up for lost time. As we crossed 'More Plains' the second highest motorable pass became visible in the distance. Before that we crossed Debring from where there is a track going towards Tso Kar and Tso Moriri lakes. We had half a mind to divert to Tso Moriri but the lure of a warm bed and rest kept us on the road to Leh.
The climb was arduous. Some of us suffered from headaches and breathlessness, but we moved on. The wind becomes dry at the top. You can literally feel it sucking out the water from your body, dehydrating you. The path was lonely with our two vehicles being the only sign of movement in the huge landscape. Look back from Tanglang La and you can see the beautiful and immense expanse of the valley below, bathed in the various shades of brown. These are sights we will never forget in an entire lifetime, sights that will call out to us to visit again and again. We didn't stay for more than 15 minutes here as the winds was killing us.
We hit Upshi by 2030 hrs and entered our details with the J&K police check post. The last 15 or so kilometers before reaching Upshi was treacherous, owing to the recent cloud burst and we really had to use all our concentration to drive through nonexistent roads. We reached Leh at 2200 hrs and checked into 'The Himalayan retreat'. It was 9 days since we had started from home, driving through some of the most treacherous and mind boggling terrain anywhere in the world. Our bodies were tired, the vehicles were battered but our spirits were still high.
At 11500ft Leh didn't look like much of an altitude, especially after what we had gone through in the last 8 days. It's a quaint little town on the outside but as you start walking the small by lanes of the town, you find that it is bustling with tourist activity. There is a steady flow of tourists and a constant thump of Royal Enfield motorcycles flowing in and out of the town. It's a traveller's town.
It has a life of its own with small cafes and restaurants hidden inside back alleys and corners, under apple and apricot trees, Tibetan refugees selling souvenirs and trinkets, monks and nuns visiting the town jostling with tourists and travelers. The people greet you with a smile and 'Juley', the local greeting. From lay men seeking adventures to serious researchers to monks and nuns, everyone came together here in a mish mash of amazing diversity and openness. It also smelled of commercialization which put us off to some degree but the town gave off a good vibe. Some good restaurants that we recommend are 'Penguin', 'Bon appetit' (you will have to book a seat in advance though) and 'Gesmo'.
Leh and around
After giving the vehicles for servicing at the local Mahindra and Mahindra workshop, we took a cab to Hemis Monastery, located 45kms from Leh. It is one of the richest monasteries and dates back to some time before 11th century. It is at this monastery that Nicolas Notovitch is claimed to have seen a manuscript which talks about Jesus's lost years being spent here. While returning we stopped over at Thiksey Monastery and Shey Palace. Thiksey Monastery is a beautiful place which resembles the Potala Palace of Lhasa in Tibet. Shey palace, situated about 15 kilometers from Leh was the summer palace of the Ladakhi kings.
These monasteries and other religious institutions are the centre of Ladhakhi society around which all life revolves. The Budhist shrines known as Chortens, Mani stones (pebbles or rocks inscribed with six syllable mantra of Avalokitesvara) and fluttering prayer flags scattered all across the land gives us a short glimpse into their way of life. We reached Leh by late evening and went for a walk through the town. The best way to see Leh town is on foot, through the small alleys and talking to the local population over butter tea. We made it a point to check out as many cafes, German Bakeries (there are scores of them but we found 'Gesmo' really good) and restaurants as we could in our short stay and loved every moment of it.
Next up was a trip to Khardung La and Nubra. At 18380 ft, Khardung La is the highest motorable pass in the world. It is crowded, touristy and commercialized, with people vying with each other to get a photo op beneath the signboard. We had a cup of tea and drove towards Nubra but halfway down into Nubra valley one of our friends felt unwell and started to vomit. Since our plan was to drive straight from Nubra to Pangong Tso, it would be a long time before he got any medical attention. We decided to return to Leh and then the talked to the local taxi drivers on the state of roads to Pangong Tso and Tsomoriri and found to our disappointment that the road were washed away and we would have to take a roundabout road from Debring ahead of Tanglangla, on the Leh Manali route. We decided to go to Pangong Tso the next morning.
We started from Leh at 4 AM towards the lake, passing through amazingly scenic surroundings and not so good roads. The drive generally takes about 5 hours and crosses the Chang La pass which has small canteen. The first look at Pangong Tso Lake is spectacular. The desolate mountains in multiple shades of brown sandwiched between the deep blue of the sky and the lake is mesmerizing. We thanked our stars to have the lake all to ourselves. It's a sacred salt water lake and it is not recommended to take a dip or wash your vehicles in the lake. We returned to Leh as two of our friends had to take a fly out the next morning.
Leh – again
It looked like Leh did not want us to leave, just yet. It was clear that we would not be able to travel to Tsomoriri or Hanle due to landslides, so we decided to stay back in Leh for another day and move to Dras. The last day in Leh was spent shopping, on vehicle repairs, refueling and resting. After a good night's sleep, we said good bye to Leh, with a promise to return, and took the highway towards Dras stopping at Gurdwara Pathar Sahib to pay our respects. The road was very good and wide with almost no traffic. We stopped over at Lamayuru for our lunch, loving the scenery around us. We were surprised to find a Malayali running a restaurant in far away Lamayuru. Over a chat we found that he runs the restaurant on lease for four months.
Kargil – and the martyrs
The drive from Leh to Dras is about 5 hrs long. We reached Kargil to find a big sprawling township almost as big as Leh. The drive from Kargil to Dras is very picturesque, with sprawling fields all along the road. We reached Dras by 1830hrs and enjoyed the hospitality of the Indian Army for the next two days as we stayed with our friend in Dras and caught up on old times with him during the evening. Next day morning we visited the Kargil War Memorial and listened to the briefing. We saw Tololing, the famous Tiger Hill and Rhino Top and were amazed at the way our brave soldiers fought in those inhospitable terrains. You can't help but respect the sentinels who guard these places at sub zero temperatures. We placed a wreath at the memorial.
The road from Dras till Zoji La was just perfect with the scenery now changing to greens, though the trees were still missing. As we entered the famous Zoji La pass, the road became treacherous. We shuddered to think of the state of road during rains. The scenery had suddenly changed as we hit Sonamarg to a beautiful green with pine trees dotting the mountain sides and houses with slanting roofs coloured in green which remind you of Switzerland. The whole valley was nothing short of heavenly. We understood why it was called a 'paradise on earth'.
As we went along we decided to visit another of our friend in Naushera which was on a different axis than our planned route altogether. We hit Srinagar and took the road to Shopian, from where we turned right onto Mughal Road crossing the Pir Panjal ranges towards Poonch. The mountains around were a bit different from the ones we had been seeing till now. These were steeper and denser. We reached Naushera at 2230 hrs and met our friend and again enjoyed the hospitality of Indian Army for the next two days. The whole story of the trip was shared, and banter stretching well into the wee hours of the morning. It was turning out to be a very fulfilling trip.
Those unplanned routes
Some planned itineraries could not be completed but we ended up having some amazing unplanned diversions. We left for Behrur after two days of fun with friends. The journey now was coming to an end and we hit Behrur at 2330hrs. After a good night's sleep we started the unremarkable drive – one vehicle towards Mumbai and the other to Bengaluru.
The travelogue or the photographs does not do Justice to what we have felt in our souls and seen with our eyes. It is inexplicable. Neither did we try looking for an explanation. This is a trip which has etched itself in our souls and we will travel these roads again and the next time we will do it at a much slower pace, stopping over at the many places where we gave our heart away to the natural awesomeness, and savor the place. The journey for us has just begun. Juley.