28 june 2019
A conflicted mind at bedtime is probably the worst sleeping elixir. I’ve tossed and turned in indecision over something that should not be bothering me at all. I am to drive to Leh from Manali. I have done it myriad times, but, always with another car in tandem. This time I am driving it solo – my car and I. Can I? yes. Should I? The debate.
The car was ready – tightened nuts and bolts. Oils, water, brake pads all checked. Spare oils, new wipers, tow chain, tyre pressure pump. Newspaper to clean the wind shield, cleaning cloths, straps, Swiss knife, torch, sleeping bag, mat, chocolate, biscuits, soup – in the event that I got stuck on one of the passes due to snow conditions, overturned trucks or raging streams!
The whole checklist. Despite that for the first time in my long years of adventuring I was not quite sure, of myself, a wholly unfamiliar feeling and I couldn’t pin it down.
I had promised to meet friends who were flying into Leh. The friends who were to drive with me could not. Finally the point was, if there is no one to do things with, do you not do them? That’s what decided me, it is a policy I have been using for ages, for all kinds of other travel, what was it about this journey that made me think twice? I went and met turtles and sharks in the Galapagos all on my own!
So, I woke this morning with a singular focus – I was going to enjoy my drive – it is the first time I would do it with no one to be responsible for, guide, or tell stories to – just I and these incredible mountains and a most trusty vehicle. We would see what the days wrought.
Jispa, my first halt, arrived in very good time, despite the traffic jam trying to climb to the Rohtang pass. Day trippers going to play in the snow! Sweating into snow suits that they have hired along the way, wholly tricked by tourist feed. The long serpent of cars going up and down that narrow, winding road creates an impasse compounded by the tourists struggling in the muddy snow, trying to get a photograph of the board telling them they are high enough to be out of breath.
My trepidation disappeared as soon as I got behind the wheel. Every curve had a reminder of the multiple trips I have made into this area, trekking and driving. The streams where we set up camps, the broken love affairs, the new starts, the people that they happened with. The meadows where I met the shepherds, the trek across the sliding snow, the tumble down the river, the hunger of the terrain looked like chocolate cake and cream – I literally drove down memory lane.
Currently I am sitting under the waving shade of a large tree gazing at the silvered Bhaga river framed by shivering poplars and stately firs, backed by lofty, wrinkled mountains with sprinkled snow tops. This is the the valley of Lahaul. It used to be sere and known for growing seed potatoes. With the changing weather and more rain crossing the high mountain barrier, they now grow all sorts of vegetables, herbs and fruit making for a lush valley floor guarded by the mountain fortress of the Pir Panjal.
The first time I trekked this valley – I was amazed at how different high mountain rivers are in their infancy to what I had imagined. The receding, wide glacier beds create, multiple meandering channels in the upper reaches, that change colour all day from icy blue, to muddy silver. Going lower, the valley normally narrows into a gorge and that gentle water turns into the battering force of a leaping, cavorting cascade of furious white water. We would sit and stare as young trekkers, smoking our local ‘bidis’. Today I wander through the memories minus the smoke.
I am staying at a home called Gemoor Khar, belonging to the family of the erstwhile wazir of Lahaul. The original, old home was a sprawling mansion built with traditional mud bricks and stone, with meeting halls and stables serving as a Serai or halting place for trading caravans going up to Ladakh to join the silk route over the Karakoram. It fell into ruin with disuse once borders appeared and traditional trade routes vanished. A newer home now graces the spot.
The family is in the process of constructing a ‘Chorten’ in memory of an elder. Conversing with the monks who have come from Bhutan to build this structure, I am discovering all that goes into the construction – special prayers at each layer, written and waxed for preservation before being placed inside. Different woods and stone in each step of the building – special colours and motifs for every decoration with particular prayers and significance. A work of painstaking art holding very special energy. After all these years I have finally begun to understand the depth of meaning and effect of these monuments that are found scattered all over Buddhist territories
The advantage of being alone to indulge in time for discovery. Reinforcing why I like the lone travel and still wondering what my trepidation was?
That it’s a tough, high mountain road crossing five high passes, some raging streams and some non existent roads? However, I have done it all before.
That I might get stuck or stranded? It isn’t exactly a lonely road, there is both military and civilian traffic all the way – I myself have so often towed people out of sticky spots – so there is no dearth of help available if needed.
Perhaps it’s more what people say about a woman travelling alone than anything that is a real issue…. conditioning, that most stubborn cementer of dogma.
I think about all the women who have done great solo journeys and the first one that comes to mind is Amelia Earhart – not perhaps the best example to make me feel better! But there have been women doing all sorts of things down the ages – I’m just driving alone on a relatively tough, albeit well travelled route and enjoying it hugely.
Having resolved my strange dis – ease for today, I shall wait to see what tomorrow brings.
30 june 2019
Tomorrow! It’s here and I don’t think I have ever been as fatigued as I am at this moment….just have to put this day down before I turn into a zombie.
I left Jispa at 06:00 hours in very good order. There wasn’t a soul on the road, I followed the silvered river. The checkpoint gentleman at Darcha asked why I didn’t have any companions and I said no one wanted to come. He looked quite befuddled. I’ve had many such reactions during the course of this day. But, to stay with the flow – I met a car coming from Bara Lacha and stopped him to ask about conditions ahead. His take, ‘the snow conditions are terrible and the stream at Bharatpur is like driving through a river.’ His number plate said be came from the deserts of Rajasthan, so I took that with a fistful of salt.
The approach to Bara Lacha was so heavily snowed that it took me back to a time when I trekked off this pass in similar conditions, the road works had only reached Zing Zing bar ( 30 kms short of the pass) and we had slipped and glisaded down to cadge a lift with the first army truck we could find. The same time that the world took on a chocolate and cream delusion. This time however, I was driving through a single lane tunnel of snow and I was so glad to have beaten the traffic – what a nightmare if I’d suddenly found myself facing some large truck, while my tyres were doing a precarious balancing ballet and trying to stay un torn, negotiating deep, snow melt gullies and the car was trying to stay even keeled when it desperately wanted to lean over and rest on the large, snow cliffs on any one side.
I got lucky and came off the pass with ease hitting the Bharatpur stream at its lowest, early morning level – though there were already people stuck there, proving the desert drivers story. However, they were a driving expedition and their leader was not enchanted to be asked, by a sole lady driver, if all was well. They were equipped, so I just kept moving and hit the amazing plains of Sarchu where the road became a newly tarred, smooth, dream.
A large gaggle of motor bikers were just leaving one of the myriad camps set on this beautiful plain. To avoid the irritation of them buzzing like mosquitos along the rest of the drive, I decided to stop for breakfast at the Sarchu dhabas with my friend Dolma. There I met my first Samaritan taxi driver, who saw me inspecting my tires and came up to chat, wondering why I was alone. He proceeded to tell me my tires were fine-‘Please don’t worry madam, I will be behind you all the way,’ was his re assurance.
The road was terrific now and I was making really good time – my main worry had been crossing Bara Lacha and I was through that hurdle, the Brandy Nala (I’ve never figured why the name) brought memories of days when none of the present infrastructure existed and we set up our own camps, carrying a whole expedition of gear to traverse this route.
The approach to the Gata loops always reminds me of the time when we came of our Zanskar trek at the bottom of these loops and could see a truck coming down them from way back down the valley.
How frantically we waved to catch his attention in the hope he would stop and give us a lift back to habitation. But there was really no way that trucker was going to notice three ( then slight) women walking up the river. We got to this corner and spread our mats on the side, determined to not walk once it was a motorable road . Luckily, another vehicle appeared going in the wrong direction, but it was a military jeep and stopped at the sight of said three women in the middle of no where. It was not a well travelled road then. The officer was kind, gave us his lunch to eat and made us promise to wait for him to return and he would take us to the nearest military camp. We had run out of food 3 days ago and were surviving on a ball of satu( a cooked barley lump) that a kind lady in the last village had shared with us. The military camp gave us a wonderful reception – hot baths, hot food and they put us in a military truck going to Manali. We rattled in the empty back sitting on spare tyres, wrapped in our sleeping bags.
The memories kept me company up the loops and across the Nakila and Lachulang la passes where I met my second Samaritan taxi driver. Stopping on the pass to lay a thanks giving stone, this whole car load disgorged on me like buzzing papparazi – after the usual surprise and multiple questions, the driver assured me that with his passengers, he would be a lot slower and therefore able to keep an eye out for any mischance that may befall me.
The best however was the J&K check post officer. The main entertainment at these lone outposts is the people who stop to register. These gentleman made me sit and have chai, wanted to know the whole story of why I was travelling alone. When I asked, ‘don’t you see many drivers alone,’ their reaction was, ‘yes, but they are men.’ A discussion on gender bias was not my purpose for the day, so it was just chai and chat. I left them with the thought that perhaps they may see more women in future. Regardless the gent offered to come with me as my passenger if not driver, he only backed out on realising I was not returning in a day or two. But they took my phone number and gave me theirs and that of the next check post in the event I had any trouble. Mobile phones don’t have signal on this route, but it was just so heartwarming, these random, simple people and their concern and kindness.
My ordeal started when I was climbing Tanglang la and for the first time in my life I experienced an altitude head ache of epic magnitude – copious amounts of water and it just got worse. Luckily this pass climbs in long, shallow loops and I made it across in quick time. The descent taxed me severely, non existent road, deep, snow run off, cuts and gullies. Bump, slip, slide, with a pounding head to compound the torture. I was not having fun. I finally hit the bottom and stopped by the stream that comes off the pass – blooming wild roses and sunshiny buttercups, soft meadow grass. Filled my empty water bottles and lay enjoying the sun, breeze and gurgling water, calming that thumping head. It was only 14:00 hours and a lovely afternoon. I could take my time, Leh was just around the corner….. got to the hotel and was hit by this numbing fatigue. Barely managed to say hello to my waiting friends and swallow a bite to eat. I am going to crash like a felled tree after a very welcome hot shower to wash off much dust and all ills.
3rd July 2019
Nubra – one of my favourite valleys and the Kesar, a homestay that embodies the place. Warm, warm hospitality, a garden full of abundant vegetables and wildly growing herbs, bright rose bushes and flying prayer flags backed by the ubiquitous poplars and striking, textured mountains. Extremely comfortable rooms with bathrooms almost as big. An amazing chef – Saajan – who can conjure up meals of exceptional quality under all sorts of circumstances. A well stocked bar with a mean Martini. Another old Serai, this time in all it’s crumbling splendour with so many wondrous stories sits just a short drive into the next village begging exploration. A valley of enchantment – wild forests of rambling rose, hillsides of lavender drenching the air in the most wondrous scent. A little Shanghri la that you only enter after crossing one of the highest motorable passes of the world.
6 the July.
Alone again, on my drive back from Debring to Manali. Yesterday we drove to Tsomoriri lake. I haven’t been here in a long time and it is as magical, though the little village of Karzok has expanded into homestays and multiple camps along the stream. The price of progress. The lake is still pristine and the Brahmini ducks and Bar headed geese are still coming to breed, seemingly, in much smaller numbers than before. I am hoping the majority of birds are hiding on the far side of the lake away from the disturbing humans. Marmots, Pikas and Kiangs showed themselves along the drive to the Tsokar lake, enroute back to the highway, so my long travelling friends from South India saw the whole gamut, including really non existent roads. They returned to Leh via the Tanglang la and I meandered my lazy way south. Stopped at the Gata loops to try and figure out which way we came off the Zanskar trek onto the road that long time ago. It has changed beyond recognition or else no one uses that path any longer, those villages that sheltered us in the Zanskar valley have probably disappeared too.
My driving day ended at Sarchu after having a late lunch break of spicy, egg maggie with my chai shop friend Dolma. The hard working spirit of these people is amazing, coming into this cold, windblown wilderness for 3 months of the year to create a little oasis of comfort and hot food for travellers along this road. She does say that they earn more than they otherwise would, making it worthwhile, I guess.
I am happy to have some sit and stare time and the wind blown grasslands of Sarchu leading to the sculpted turrets along the valley of the young Tsarap river are a perfect dreaming place.
Probably my best day yet – I left Sarchu at 0600 hrs. Empty, smooth road till I reached the big nala at Bharatpur, which was already a deep torrent, luckily in only one spot and not spread across its whole bed like it had been earlier. However in that one deep, gushing bit was sitting a little Maruti, water flowing into the car, passengers tucked up on the seats, one poor gentleman wading in the freezing water trying to push and pull moving rocks in an effort to help the car find traction. A small truck on the other side tried to pull it out, but their rope broke. Finally it was easier for me to use my chain and pull it back, then tow him across behind me. He followed me till we crossed all the mad, bad, bits across Bara Lacha, luckily he didn’t need any further help and zoomed off after a waved thank you. I lazed through the short journey to Jispa enjoying the burgeoning fields, the nomadic rock shelters, the silvery streams which have grown in a week from trickles to full flow. There is a bubbling joy one feels, occasionally, when everything is just so, the spirit soars and the world becomes a wonder.
The day continued in this lazy vein, came into Gemoor Khar by 10:00 even with the slow pace and stops. Sat on a bench under the poplars gazing at the river and mountains, listening to the history of this place and it’s association with the trade route and the great game of the British. The stories that have played out in these remote mountain fastnesses which beg further exploration.This trip took me to two such old Serai homes in completely different parts of the mountains – I wonder if they perhaps hosted the very same travellers aeons ago too. That may be my next journey of discovery.
Home safe with a reinforced belief in the gut versus the conditioned mind. An absolute conviction to never mix a cocktail of altitude with fatigue.
Journeys are just the best classrooms.
Information of interest:
This route crosses all of the Himalayan ranges across 5 high passes with constantly changing terrain. The average elevation along the route is 4000 m. The road stays safely open for about 3- 4 months – mid June to mid September and is a mix of snow melting mud slides, bouldered river beds, and some well tarred stretches.
Rohtang Pass: 3978 m, Baralacha La: 5030 m, Nakeela Pass: 4739 m, Lachulang Pass: 5065 m, Tanglang la: 5328 m.
Leh town: 3500 m. Khardungla Pass into Nubra: 5359 m.
Tso Morriri lake: 4522 m