It was late night. My butt was flat after a grueling yet picturesque 15 hours jeep ride through the Himalayas, but still I was excited to be in Leh – the former capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh.
Leh is not like any other town in India. While not as passive as Srinagar, it still has a passive aura that is not compared to that of all major Indian cities. While its beautiful dry landscapes and monasteries could have left me breathless, I was breathless for other reasons –the high altitude– as Leh is situated 11,562 ft. (3,524 m.) above sea level. So, no exploring for me that night, as I had to acclimate.
The town is still dominated by the now ruined Leh Palace, the former mansion of the royal family of Ladakh. The nine storeys palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century and was modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
It was abandoned in the mid-19th century after Dogra forces took control of Ladakh, forcing the royal family to move to Stok Palace.
After enjoying a bit of the Leh Palace, some monasteries, and the peaceful environment of Leh; it was time to go back on the road again. I arrived to Leh through the Srinagar-Leh road, now I had to continue through the 473 km long Leh-Manali road, which is the only other road that connects back to “civilization”. (This road is open for traffic from around mid-June to early October due to weather and high altitude)
This high road traverses the upland desert plateaux of Rupsho whose altitude ranges from 3,660 meters to 4,570 meters. Four high passes are crossed enroute among which the highest one, known as Taglang-la, is the world’s second highest motorable pass at an altitude of 17,469 ft. (5,325 m.).
I couldn’t recognize whether I was on a high pass or not, but I could definitely feel the high altitude as we winded up and down the mountains. One of the benefits of taking this route in this direction, instead of Manali to Leh, is that it is easier to acclimate to the high altitude since Leh is already pretty high. On the other hand, it is not unusual to fall sick to high altitude when traveling from Manali to Leh.
Anyways, if I thought 15 hours on a jeep from Srinagar to Leh were bad enough, Leh to Manali took 24 hours!!! We only had a few food/toilet stops along the way.
One of my favorite sights were seeing the Buddhist prayer flags on several nomadic camps, among bridges, wrapped around poles, and everywhere possible.
As with the Srinagar-Leh road, this route provided views of mountains, several streams and waterfalls, and hanging glaciers. The main difference, though, was the bigger expanse of desert like landscapes. But, worse than the former road, this one has more dangerous, narrower, and landscape prone roads after passing the Spiti Valley and crossing the Rohtang Pass.
We were about 18 hours away from Leh when we took, what I consider was, the most dangerous part of the entire road trip. We went from a high pass to a very low zone by zig-zagging down the mountain of the very narrow road, bypassing cargo trucks, taking very sharp turns, and riding hair-thin away from the edge into the precipice. We could have probably zig-zagged 30 times, or 40, or 50… I don’t know, but I could feel the air pressure change as we went down, the bus shake from side to side as we turned, and bump up and down on every hole we took on this unpaved road. All this in the middle of the night – with no lights except the bus’ headlights.
Twenty-four hours in, and Manali felt like heaven! Well, it is technically a backpacker haven full of adrenaline and outdoor sports. For me, it was just a place where I could be lazy and enjoy another pocket of peaceful environment for a few days before heading back to busy and hectic Delhi on a 14 hours bus.
The whole circuit around the Himalayas is one experience that must be had while in India, especially if you want to see a different India where the landscape and a more passive cultural approach predominate the whole experience.