Manali-Leh highway is one of the Asia’s most beautiful route you’ll ever come across. The gorgeous landscapes and variety of experiences will leave you spellbound. The topography changes so frequently that you will not believe you are on a single journey.
Here is the account of my journey where I spent the most beautiful 24 hours of my life.
I took the following route:
Manali – Rohtang - Gramphu - Kokhsar - Keylong - Jispa - Darcha – Zingzingbar - Baralacha La - Bharatpur - Sarchu - Gata Loops - Nakee La - Lachulung La - Pang - Tanglang La - Gya - Upshi - Karu – Leh
THE DEFIANT DREAMERS. Yes, that is the new face of human behaviour I saw through them. Bold dreams but no plans. Believers of ‘Living by the day’ philosophy. High on adrenaline rush but poor on planning. Questions like what they will do, where they will stay, how they will travel, who will guide them; were ducked. They were living in the present without the worry of the future.
Coming back to my tempo traveller story. From the looks, The Defiant Dreamers, seemed excited about the trip but were sitting in their silos. It was a beautiful night. Millions of stars were romancing with the clear sky. Hairpin bends, bumpy gravel, steep ascends were giving a body massage, albeit with hard hands. As we got closer to Rohtang Pass, the crowned prince of Leh Manali highway sitting pretty at a height of 13500 ft, weather became chilly and I cursed myself for being under-dressed.
Suddenly, after one and a half hours strenuous drive, our tempo came to a halt. There was a sudden break in the dreams of the sleeping travellers. Everyone was surprised but decided to stay quiet. Multiple theories ran in head – Probably our driver is waiting for other tempo drivers or he has to answer nature’s call or some problem with the tyres. Etcetera etcetera. 5 minutes passed. 10 minutes passed.
“Bhaiya, hum iddhar kyun ruke hai” asks one of the Mumbaikar.
“Kyunki mujhe neend aa rahi hai.” replies the driver point blankly.
We had our heart in our mouth. Even though we didn’t want to break our journey so soon but reaching Leh hail and hearty was a priority. After all Jaan hai to Jahan hai.
Meanwhile, the Israeli lad and the Mumbaikars decided to take a leak and set shutterbugs rolling. In their Nike and Adidas jackets they were shivering to their bones but that didn’t deter them from giving cool poses. Pain today is gain tomorrow. Documentation of this incident on Facebook will catapult their social image – thanks to the CURRENCY of likes and comments they’ll get.
After an hour, as soon as the driver turned on his seat, one of the guys pounced on the opportunity to ask if he had a good sleep and was he ready to drive. The driver was offered cold water. At 5 am, we reconvened our journey.
There are sunrises and then there sunrises in the highlands. The sunrise in Rohtang Pass wasn’t less than magical in its display of colours. The morning’s mist was trying its best to filter out any attempts the sun was making to paint the canvas that was the sky. But Sun is a relentless kid, who doesn’t take no for an answer. Slowly the surreal glow took over the mountains, turning blue to grey and then to orange, culminating in the majesty of the orange ball of fire rising in between two peaks. The mountain tops looked as if they were trying out different outfits.
My eyes were savouring the taste of this nirvanic beauty. Sun, sky and the mountains were playing hide-n-seek. I was so engrossed in that moment that I forgot to take pictures of this majestic sunrise.
Anyway, all good things come to an end. Sunrise gave way to sunny day. The landscape changed immediately after getting past Rohtang Pass and entering into Chandra river valley in Lahaul region. The greenery on the southern side of the mountain pass disappeared and the mountain slopes on the leeward side became brown and arid.
Flower beds in Lahaul Spiti on Manali-Leh highway
Arid and Brown Mountains beyond Rohtang Pass
We stopped at the first police check post – Khoksar. It is 21kms beyond Rohtang pass in Lahaul and is the coldest place in Lahaul.
We had half an hour to freshen up and have tea. My gall bladder was bursting, so I rushed to the toilet. It had a feeble door but was clean, with a flush facility. There was ten rupees charge to use it. As I checked my pocket, I realised the five hundred rupees note was missing. I asked if I could pay later. The caretaker gave an affirmative lovely smile. After finishing my business as I went up, the local kid lunged forward and gave me my lost note. I guess “Honesty is the best policy” is read by all but practised only by Pahadies.
At the dhaba, one of the two Taiwanese girls joined me for a small talk. She and her friend were studying medicine and was on their maiden travel abroad. She was an extrovert while her friend was an introvert.
We got back into our chariot of fire and started are onward journey. At night, the driver was playing Honey Singh. Now he was playing nostalgic 90s. It was a good mock test of 90s Bollywood music and surprisingly I did well.
Suraj Tal, lies just below the Bara-lacha-la pass in the Lahaul and Spiti valley
From Khoksar to Tandi the valley view was just marvellous. A heaven for landscape photographers. Driving through picturesque highway, we crossed many mountain streams and kept marvelling at the glaciers that make windows home screensavers. We passed throughKeylong and Jispa, where cute little kids waved at us and our way momentarily got blocked by sheep herds.
Jispa village beyond Rohtang
Our next stop was Daracha. We crossed the River Bagha to stop at the handful of Dhabas clustered around the river bridge. A new bridge is being built over the river but its completion is still a distant dream. A friendly hulkish Shepherd dog came close to me. I, being the dog lover, offered it Parle G biscuits thinking like the city stray dogs, it too shall love it. But it didn’t even eat one biscuit. I was heart broken :(
Darcha Police Check Post
Dhabha at Darcha
Anyway, I moved on to have Himalaya’s favourite breakfast – Soupy Maggi. Over Maggi, I met my new friends – Darshan, Karan and Anthony. Like me, they too were MARKETING slaves.
Bonding over Maggi
Posing at Daracha, situated on the banks of River Bagha
After loaded stomachs, we proceeded to Sarchu, 84 km from Darcha. The road climbed to Patseo, where we got glorious rear view of Darcha. A little further was Zingzingbar. Icy streams made impromptu appearance across the road while grey and red-brown scree reached down from the nude mountainside to the road edge. The road then moved over the Baralacha La (54 km; 16500 ft.), at the crossroads of Lahaul, Zanskar, Spiti and Ladakh regions.
After crossing the check post, we followed the Chandra River till Tandi. At Tandi, we saw the confluence of rivers Chandra and Bhaga.
Stunning Sarchu Valley
Baralacha La (16500 ft.), the pass which falls at the crossroads of Lahaul, Zanskar, Spiti and Ladakh regions
From Baralacha La Pass, we climbed down to Bharatpur. Instead of stopping over at Sarchu, we stopped at Bharatpur. Not our choice but our Driver’s choice because he was too sleepy to drive. Thanks to his owner, he had not slept for a week.
The backdrop at Bharatpur was so stunning that no picture can do justice to its beauty. However, I tried my best to capture it.
Breaking for lunch at Bharatpur
After the photo session, I along with my new friends, looked around for lunch options. Since few other bike groups and Tempos had halted there so there was a sudden rush. We settled in for the neeli chhatri wala dhaba. We ordered Tomato Soup, Chicken Soup, Sweet n Sour soup, Fried rice and Rajma Chawal. Tasted aam Ka acchar made in pahadi style.
Here, I got to know my co-passengers more up close. All in their 20s. Adventurous, funny, ambitious and supremely confident. Everyone had one thing in common – Leh was the big break they were taking before/after the big leap in their life. The Israelis were in India after their army stint. Anthony, one of the Mumbaikar was flying to Dubai for his second MBA, Darshan was planning to do the same in Canada. And Karan was weighing his options. The Taiwanese had just finished their medical exams and were seeking change before getting into the grind. We discussed about food, cultures, tourist places, Israel-gaza situation and China-Taiwan relations among other topics. We even cracked jokes on each other. Did some crazy photo shoot on Tempo’s roof and on bike.
Contrary to the perception, one of the Taiwanese girl (pardon me for not remembering anyone’s name) was quite friendly and forthcoming. She admitted that because of language barrier they are often misunderstood as boring, conventional and closed community. As per her, people in Taiwan hate China and take it as an offence if someone calls them Chinese. When I asked her if they were planning to visit Pangong Tso Lake she said “Being Taiwanese, we are not allowed to go there either from India side or China side.”
The Israelis were in Manali for four weeks and were now planning to stay in Leh for indefinite period. They had no fixed itinerary. They gave some interesting sound bites about Israel like
“You can cover Israel from left to right in three-four hours and top to bottom in seven hours”
“Everyone comes to India with bare essentials – sandals of one particular design and brand, 1 pair of comfortable shoes, 4 pairs of undergarments, 2 Tops/T-shirts, 1 comfy track pant, medicines, one towel, one cap and sun shades. Rest all we buy in India”
“Even though we (she and her boyfriend) stay in the same vicinity in Israel, we didn’t know each other. I met him in Rishikesh two months back and since then we have been travelling together.”
Neeli Chattri Wala Dhaba
The Defiant Dreamers posing at Bharatpur
The Defiant Dreamers from Israel
After sumptuous lunch, photo and chat sessions, we MOVED ON from Bharatpur to Sarchu. At Sarchu, you leave the state of Himachal Pradesh and enter into the Ladakh region of J&K. Sarchu (14,074ft) is a major halt point with tented ACCOMMODATION IN the Himalayas on the Leh-Manali Highway. It is situated between Baralacha La to the south and Lachulung La to the north. An Indian army camp is sited nearby on the banks of the Tsarap Chu River.
Now we were told that we won’t be stopping anywhere for tea or food break until Pang.
Pang is located 80 km from Sarchu. It is where you cross the famous Gata Loops. Gata loops are 21 hairpin bends. After passing through the Gata loops, we crossed the third pass on the Manali Leh route, Nakee La Pass, 15,547ft followed by another pass, Lachulung La pass, situated at an altitude of 16,616 ft.
Gata loops – 21 hairpin bends
The 27 kms long descent from Lachulung La Pass took us to Pang, where we stopped at the police check post. Here, we had our last tea break of the day before finishing the last lap of our Manali-Leh journey. We met few traveller groups. Many of these groups had been with us at various dhabas. One of them, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike Israeli, played and sang “Aaj blue hai paani paani aur din bhi sunny sunny” on his mobile. He said this song is known to every Israeli. Yo Yo Honey Singh you have arrived. And how!
It was already dark and we got into our tempo with a plan to take a quick nap. By now my head and body had given up. Much to the relief of my aching body, the road from Pang took us to the famous Morey Plains; the biggest and the highest plateau on Earth on stretch of 42 Kms at an altitude of 15,400 ft. and is flanked by mountain ranges on both sides. This stretch of 42 kms was relatively straight and in good condition. Our driver utilised this opportunity to cover up the lost time.
Morey Plains; the biggest and the highest plateau on Earth on stretch of 42 Kms at an altitude of 15,400 ft.
After the accelerated journey on the Morey plains, we ascended to the third highest pass in Ladakh, Tanglang La (17,582ft). Final few kms to the summit of the pass were in bad condition but we were too tired to notice that. Everyone was fast asleep until our Tempo stopped in the middle of nowhere.
We heard a man pleading to our driver to help him, as during the ascent their Tempo got damaged and had fuel leakage. They were out of fuel. Our driver agreed to help the hapless driver. But 6 litres was not going to be enough. Another vehicle came from Leh side and they too agreed to part some. And just then our driver realised that we were driving with a flat Tyre. So the tyres were fixed.
Troubles didn’t seem to end for the other tempo. Someone had stepped over the key and had broken it. So there was no way they were getting out from that place that night. Our driver tried our key but didn’t succeed. Few more tempos and bikers joined in by then. We left the spot to inform THE NEXT Police check post about the incident.
Because it was a dark night, we missed the spectacular views from Tangla La from where you can see the road to the pass for miles on both directions. The rest of the journey from Tangla La-Rumset-Upsi-Karu-Leh was spent sleeping.
We finally reached Leh at 1:30 am instead of 7pm.
I was so sleepy that I even forgot to take anyone’s contact details. Their pictures are still waiting in my camera to be shared with them. But my bad, they’ll stay with me only, at least as of now.
Since Changspa is tourists one stop destination so all the fellow travellers decided to go there while I went to my guest house on Chubi Lane.
So on the fourth day of my solo trip I discovered another face of human behaviour – THE DEFIANT DREAMERS in the marvellous dreamland
So how did you find my journey so far? Do share your feedback.