We crept past the sleeping receptionist and out of the hotel at 1:30 am, walking through Old Manali in the pouring rain. Stray dogs howled and a rat scurried across the street in front of us. I had been traveling in India for several months with my partner, Teresa. I both loved and hated this fascinating, vibrant, consuming and sometimes shocking country. Although there were times when I wished I was elsewhere, I knew the minute I left I would yearn for India again.
Escape to the Himalayas
We had lingered in the chilled-out village of Old Manali enjoying the cool cafes, fresh mountain air, and hikes through the woods. Feeling rejuvenated after the dust, crowds, and heat that we experienced elsewhere in the sub-continent, we were about to embark on our final leg of the trip. We were heading to far-flung Leh in the heart of the Himalayas.
In fact, the bus was leaving in half an hour.
The ancient city of Leh is an adventure traveler’s dream destination. Tibetan influenced, it is scattered with monasteries and stupas galore. Prayer flags flutter against the blue skies and snow-capped mountains. Saffron clad Buddhist monks stroll through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and travelers sit in restaurants drinking fruit smoothies. A Himalayan utopia.
To Fly or Not to Fly
But first, the journey — an epic road trip offering heavenly views and an experience to be relished and remembered. However, I was only too aware of the downside. Many travelers suffer from altitude sickness in the form of headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Also, it was going to be along the infamous Manali to Leh highway, one of the most dangerous roads in the world!
The road has sheer drops to the sides of several hundred metres. Evidence of previous disasters remain in the form of mangled trucks and cars. It is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Many people, when deciding how to get from Manali to Leh, rather sensibly, choose to fly. Despite the warnings in my guide book, I didn’t want to miss out on this epic journey, for it had been so persistently present in my travel dreams for many years.
And So Begins a Hair-Raising Journey….
The mini-bus that would hopefully take us all the way to Leh, waited on a street corner. It didn’t take long to fill with a raggle-taggle of international travelers. And so, the twenty-hour journey commenced.
The bus made its way up into the mountains, speeding around hairpin bends in the mist and torrential rain. By the grace of Vishnu, we swerved oncoming lorries that thundered towards us in the darkness. Our gung-ho, pot smoking driver was asked to slow down by a girl sitting behind us. She was told simply to “go to sleep.” She replied that she couldn’t sleep because she was too scared.
Meanwhile, Teresa was leaning out of an open window throwing up in the driving rain. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she said. We had been on the road for an hour.
The Splendor of the Landscape Reveals Itself
As it grew light out, the bus stopped at a desolate spot in a valley. Passports were collected and taken to a military checkpoint. We were in the disputed territory of Ladakh now, and parts of the region are still closed to tourists. A small café sold drinks, woolly hats, gloves and scarves. It was freezing.
Back on board after a sleepless night, fatigue caught up with me and I dozed off. When I awoke, the sun was rising, and the sublime beauty of the landscape became apparent. My eyes took in the snowy mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, high desert terrain and sculpted rock formations. It was a spellbinding sight to wake up to.
At a breakfast stop a couple hours later, I sat on a rock, enjoying a yak cheese sandwich I had brought from Manali. I had eaten breakfast in some scenic places around the world, but here I was on top of the world and it felt incredible.
Quirky Road Signs
The rugged 479 km road winds its way through some of the highest mountain passes on the planet. I observed the crashed vehicles on the slopes, a warning to all who pass. Unfortunately, it didn’t serve as a warning to our driver, who continued to hurtle along at a breakneck pace.
One of the many features of the journey are the unique and quirky yellow road signs that are placed periodically along the highway. Among the signs we spotted were…
“Do your dozing in bed”.
“Mountains are a pleasure, only if you drive with leisure”.
And the somewhat sexist, “Don’t gossip, let him drive”.
Naively, I thought that perhaps there would be a change of driver after say, nine or ten hours. It gradually sank in that this guy was driving the entire distance from Menali to Leh. Every few hours, the bus stopped at a cluster of parachute cafes, windswept and bleak. The driver would disappear into one of the tents and snatch a ten-minute nap.
On Top of the World
The bus splashed through the run off from waterfalls. We ventured off road, bumping across rough terrain. At one point, we became embedded in a ditch and everyone helped to dig the bus out. As anticipated, this was no ordinary road trip.
Bikers roared past on Royal Enfields, the highway being a classic motor biking route. Hardy cyclists struggled up mountain passes. I felt admiration for their resilience in such adverse conditions, but also a little envious. There was a part of me that wanted to be out there instead of ensconced in a bus, cut off from the elements.
We arrived at Tanglang La (5,300 meters), as the sun went down. The raw wind whipped across the lunar landscape and a stupa covered in prayer flags marked the spot.
As night fell, the bus descended into a valley. By now, both Teresa and I were suffering from altitude headaches and fatigue — our marathon road trip had taken its toll and we were keen to reach our destination.
At 10:00 pm the bus finally rolled into Leh.
As expected, it had been an adventure. I was glad I didn’t fly.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
G4Free Lightweight Travel Pack: This is ideal to use during the day and is large enough to carry anything I may need. It has a zipped department inside for valuables and a net pocket on either side for water bottles.
Petzl Tikka Headlamp: My Petzl headlamp is an absolute Godsend and necessity for the frequent power cuts experienced when traveling in India and it’s also great to have when camping anywhere.
Canon Powershot ELPH: This digital camera has 12x optical zoom, and serves as my main mode of photography (although I also sometimes use my phone and Kindle as well).