The Manali-Leh Highway Part 2

22:17 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

Punctual as ever, my alarm disturbed my sleep with the call to get moving. I wriggled an arm free from my quilted cocoon, to gauge the temperature. It was freezing. And it was still pitch black outside. By the time I had built up the courage to step into the cold air, I only had 10 minutes left before we were due to depart. I put on my clothes over my pyjamas because it was too cold to disrobe any further. I quickly cleaned my teeth and traipsed toward the car.
The journey continued across mountains and valleys and slowly the sunlight revealed an alien, lunar landscape. All vegetation had disappeared and the rocks had a rusted quality to them, in the early morning light. Around 7am we turned a corner to find the scenery open up and reveal an amazing skyline. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us. Clouds teased the summits and hugged the valleys. The sun climbed further, the clouds evaporated and the grey sky melted into a gorgeous blue. My tiredness was quickly overcome by the awe the mountains inspired.

We reached the Suraj-Vishaal Taal (glacial lake) and even Dawa got his phone out to take pictures. We were lucky to have such open skies and undisturbed snow cover. The lake was crystal clear. There wasn’t a single ripple and the reflected sky beneath us was as vivid as that above. My friend set up his tripod to take a few decent pictures and I ran around with my compact snapping everything I could see. We were all dumbfounded. With frozen fingers I built my own little stone monument to mark my moment there. I sat back in the snow, soaked in the scenery and really appreciated my pyjama under-layer.

A short drive away was the Baralacha La pass at 4890 metres above sea level. We quickly conquered the pass but I could feel the tiredness taking over. I closed my eyes for a few moments.  I opened my eyes to find us pulling up to Bharatpur truck stop in the midday sun. I’d slept for a few hours and barely had the energy to climb out of the car. In my mind I was just tired from being in a car for so long, but my friends had noticed my slumberous behaviour and were anxious. At this height, altitude sickness is a real concern. I am reasonably fit but there is nothing in the UK to prepare you for the altitudes in the Himalayas.

I was told to eat often and drink plenty of water. While Dawa took our passports to the latest checkpoint I slouched in a white patio chair at a tea shop and blankly stared at the mountains. I really wanted sleep. Eventually my bladder woke up and decided it was time for me to move. Like a drunkard, I ambled to a small corrugated iron arrangement with a hole in the ground. I looked down at this ‘toilet’ and the stench slapped my across the face like the most malevolent of smelling salts. It was pretty disgusting, but I was alert again, at least.
The journey continued throughout the day. We stopped at several truck stops and had tea in the parachute tents. Snow-capped mountains gave way to huge plains and then transformed into the most ridiculously huge valleys. The scale of things was incredible. In between bouts of altitude induced sleep I medicated myself on bottled water and chocolate bars. To be honest, as illnesses go, I’ve suffered worse.

In the afternoon we reached the town of Upshi, Jammu and Kashmir, which had the last checkpoint before Leh. Our Himachal Pradesh car license plates didn’t impress the checkpoints patrollers here in Jammu and we had to pay their ‘taxes’ on three separate occasions. We’d been in the car constantly for two long days and were all pretty exhausted and grumpy by this point. Except for Dawa, for him this was all in a day’s work and he looked as fresh as a daisy.
As we approached Leh the scenery changed for a final time. Leh sits in a sandy, desert-like plateau and is surrounded by – unsurprisingly - majestic, snow-capped peaks. I was surprised to find how populated Leh was. After two days of sparse villages and temporary trucks stops we’d finally arrived in a bustling Indian town with all the usual trappings – traffic, tourists, soldiers and plenty of cows in the road. Leh is home to a large Tibetan population and is modelled upon their home of Lhasa. Our journey was over but the fun was only just beginning. White water rafting, mountain biking, trekking – it’s all available here. However at that moment we were happy to settle down to a welcome meal at the Wonderland restaurant and began to discuss what we’d just experienced - fear, awe, sickness and the most amazing scenery on the planet.  

The Manali-Leh Highway

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