India is certainly a land full of opportunity for the traveller, something we have found in our, extremely limited, three weeks here. Our trip North to Jammu and Kashmir took us to Srinigar where we discovered that India wasn’t just hustle and bustle and heat like it was in Mumbai and Delhi but that it was also peaceful, friendly and incredibly hospitable.
The drive from Srinigar to Leh was one that we would prefer to forget, a long deserted stretch that seemed to blend into 18 hours of arse numbingly bad roads and small remote towns that would always have a life saving cup of hot chai. The reward was more than compensatory though because Leh is a place that every traveller to India shouldn’t miss out on and, by the looks of things, most don’t.
When someone says that a place is over touristed its usually a sure thing that we will avoid that place at all costs, Leh (and India) on the other hand is a place that has the most internal tourism that we have seen, the local tourists outnumber the international tourists 50 to 1. And although this still makes a place as small as Leh really busy, it keeps the authenticity that is lost when you visit a place that is overrun with international tourists. In other words, VISIT LEH ITS FANTASTIC!!
The very reason I have entitled this post “Choc Full” is because of the surprises that India continues to offer up for us. Our jaws practically hit the floor of the Jeep/Taxi when we arrived in the valley leading down to Pangong Tso (lake) on Saturday afternoon, a completely lunar landscape ending in a blue lake with crystal clear water and all of this surrounded by snow capped peaks… it really was surreal. Inx order to reach this small piece of untouched perfection we crossed the Chang-La and at 5360m ASL its one of the highest passes crossable by car… IN THE WORLD (that’s saying something)!
The highest being Kardung La, en route to the Nubra valley, and is just a touch over five and a half Ks above the sea!
I have digressed, sorry! Pangong (like I said before) is perfection, it is a place that shouldn’t really exist in real life and is absolutely awe-inspiring! You really have to see the photos to understand and you really have to visit it to appreciate this! The first thing that blows you away is the sheer size of the place,
and you can really only see 25% of it because the Chinese have increased their border into the area and now “occupy” ¾ of the Lake too! The next is the road sign as you arrive that reminds you of how high up you are, in feet it sounds even more impressive so here goes some imperial boasting, thirteen thousand, four hundred and fifty one feet (hairy ones at that)… the mind boggles!
We stayed in a typical Tibetan “homestay” in a room in somebody’s house and ate and talked into the night with some Israeli guys as well as some bikers from India who were vacationing around Kashmir for a couple of weeks and doing so on their Royal Enfields, madness I tell you considering the state of some of the roads!
Funnily enough, what only consumed two full days of our trip felt as though we had been away from Leh for a week, and we were just 155km away.
So, Mumbai: check, Delhi: check, Leh: check and Pangong Tso: check, we are quickly running out of time and have already modified our itinerary to include Srinagar. One of our new friends that we met up at the Lake nailed it when he said if you’re planning a trip in India always include 10 extra days for travelling time alone! Total tally by the time we get back to Delhi … 104 hours in transit, by the time we reach Kolkata on the way to Thailand it will be more like 110!!
That brings me to our latest surprise, the Leh-Manali highway and our last trip in a “Jeep”, EVER. This little adventure set us back a whopping 1500 rupees each (R230 or $33) and took us 19 hours and 473km all the way to the popular mountain resort town of Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The road was staggeringly beautiful and equally treacherous, a true adventure! On the side, 473km in 19 hours means an average speed of just under 25km/h, not exactly the speediest of trips but you would miss so much if you were going any faster. I’ve popped up some photos to assist with the description of this epic road but I will give a run through of what I remember as well.
To accomplish this two-day journey in a single day we left Leh at 2am on Monday morning. This was perhaps not the smartest of decisions considering we had been up since leaving Pangong earlier that day. Our route took us over (reputably) the world’s second highest vehicular pass called Tanglang-La at 5241m and our new friend Vinay informed us that the road had been swept away and rebuilt since he travelled it with a tour group the day before… not really what we wanted to know Vinay!
The rest wound its way up and over numerous other passes, past Sarchu (a tented night stop for travellers) and down into the Lahaul Valley dotted with small villages and towered over by gigantic peaks! At one stage we drove through some high altitude plains and our driver, in his ultimate wisdom, chose the most difficult soft sand to drive through! Needless to say we got stuck…
But despite this, the Himalayas really have stunned us and have made me want to take Dom to the Drakensberg and show her what SA has to offer! Dom’s just reminded me about the avalanche that we saw coming off a mountain as we drove past hundreds of meters below.
The final hump to cross is called Rhothang-La, it is small in comparison at less than 4000m high but it makes up for this minor issue with THE most stunning beauty!
If this place is not protected at present then it should be. The Northern side is a twisted stretch of road starting in a small village and winds its way ever upward past enormous waterfalls and boulders precariously perched on the edge of the road above us. The total length of the pass is 35km and the second half is certainly the most treacherous. It had rained heavily during the night and our driver and Vinay were noticeably stressed about driving down again. There is a 300m section of the road that is renowned for rock falls and landslides that we had to pass, this made even more dangerous by the saturated condition of the road and mountainside. So with Dom clutching my hand and everybody silenced and holding thumbs our brave driver floored it,
slipping and sliding about on the edge of a precipice and we made it to the end of the avalanche zone with our lives intact as well as our underpants :)
As if to make up for the moment of terror, the pass opened up into a magical misty pine forest and wound its way back down into the Manali valley.
We drove along with the Beas river pumping full of melted glacier right next to us, and through a couple of the picturesque mountain villages in the region. Palchan looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings with workers repairing a pipeline by torchlight! And finally we had reached Manali, bought some beers (priorities) and found a guesthouse to stay the night. A hot shower and some dinner saw us through to bed, something we hadn’t seen in about 40 hours!