The Manali-Leh Highway Part 1

21:56 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Our two-day journey into Indian Tibet began sleepily on an overcast and drizzly morning in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. We intended to drive the Manali-Leh highway across the Himalayas and some of the highest mountain passes on Earth. Our driver, Dawa, collected us from our hostel and our group of four climbed into his car and began on our way. The ubiquitous concrete buildings with painted shop shutters quickly disappeared and were replaced by rugged hills, coniferous trees and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls. In this part of India you are never too far away from dramatic scenery.
Our enthusiasm wasn’t hard notice as we were all hanging out of the car windows with our cameras and making lots of cooing noises – “Ooh look at the drop on that waterfall” and “Ahh, look at that snowy peak”. We must have looked vaguely ridiculous to the school kids walking along the winding roads on their daily commute. The kids seemed oblivious to the scenery all around them but I think our eagerness made up for it – and we didn’t have a day of classes to contend with.

After a few hours on the road we stopped for a typical roadside breakfast. The café wasn’t too busy and our breakfast arrived promptly - spicy dosas, overly salty omelette and glasses of coffee with a layer of film. The first leg of the journey was to take around 10 hours, so we were back in the car before we had chance to digest our meals. As the ascent continued Dawa began playing his Tibetan Mantra CD. The music comprised of one song which was about an hour long and repeated the same prayer over and over. It was authentic to the region so I didn’t mind listening to it. A few yawns escaped my mouth but thought nothing of it. I put it down to the mantra, swaying roads and belly full of food.

The scenery changed frequently. As we climbed, there were less trees and more boulders and rocks. The road narrowed and began to hug the edge of the mountain. To one side of the car was a rock wall and to the other, a sheer drop. For the first time in India we all fastened our seatbelts.
Overcast drizzle matured into rain and thick fog which the car’s headlights struggled to penetrate. With no tree cover, rainwater was uninhibited and quickly flooded the road. The surface was slick with mud and puddled water.
Dawa was in total control of the car but I held my breath every time the front of the car pointed towards the cliff edge. Our ponderous crawl to the summit was hampered by traffic. Inevitably, it was always a Tata tipper truck that needed to pass us. As trucks squeezed past our car, the wheels groaned in the search for traction as rocks slid off the cliff edge. I was finding it hard to appreciate the bright paintwork and gentle humour painted onto each one of the trucks. Looking round in the car everyone else was equally pensive and I realised the conversation had died out some time ago.

traffic on the Rohtang Pass

When the path ahead was clear of traffic we were able to continue up the mountain. The price of passage was the occasional sideways slide or the back wheels suddenly deciding they wanted to go in another direction to the front of the car. Dawa’s calmness was reassuring to me but I still held on to the door handle in the futile belief that might just save me if we toppled off the edge.
Mercifully, the road flattened out and we could see the Rohtang Pass ahead of us. Out of relief we all applauded and Dawa treated us to a shy smile. At the summit of the pass, we raced out of the car for photographs.  However, after a few shots I realised I could see my breath and the rain was soaking through my jumper. I was a little underdressed for the altitude of 3978 metres.

After a morning of constant stimulation I was feeling tired. The scenery was becoming familiar and the early start to the morning seemed to have worn me out. On came the Mantra CD and the car heater and a give in to a little nap.
We drove into the Tibetan village of Keylong to stop for food. We found ourselves a little Tibetan restaurant and ordered tea, hot and sour soup and plenty of momos. The soup wasn’t amazing but the momos, delicately steamed dumplings filled with vegetables and meat, were little packets of heaven.
Tibetans settled in Keylong after relocating from Tibet. The whole area is inaccessible during the winter months due to the heavy snowfall and impenetrable mountains. The settlement in Keylong remained undiscovered by the Indian authorities until border disputes with Pakistan forced the Border Roads Organisation to build roads and open up access across the mountain range. These so-called ‘Mountain Tamers’ have done a first class job in opening up the whole region and it is becoming increasing popular with tourists during the summer season.

On the road the scenery had changed again. The farms could have been mistaken for the English countryside with their sheep and dry stone walls. Around 5pm we reached the village of Jispa, where we would stay for the night. We were travelling in the off-season and the village was virtually deserted. Thankfully Dawa knew where to find the hotel staff and they opened up to let us in. I’m sure the hotel is suitable during the summer, but the temperature dropped close to zero celsius during the night and the lack of hot water and lighting in my room was a real disappointment. The remaining leg of our journey would begin at 5am, so we had an early night. I got into my dashing Banana Man pyjamas, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, two more quits and fell asleep before I could even begin to process the amazing scenery we’d witnessed.

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