Why do I drive alone? A non Corona story.

Tiracol Ferry

I am so tired of Corona stories – that I thought I would share a different one.

Why, as a woman in my beautiful country, India, do I drive alone? A frequently asked question or an expression of disbelief and, or censure.

It’s quite simple really, I drive alone because I don’t  find people who want to do what I want.

So why not take a driver? 

Because, in truth, along with my rallying cousin Hari Singh, and my, rallying friend Vijay(TT) Parmar, I am the best driver I know.

It also frees me to do as I please. Stop and stare, walk into a village fair, decide to do a shorter or longer day. Listen to the music I like. Eat or not eat. All the happy alone things that don’t require responsibility for another being.

I have not met many people who like travelling my way, or, whom I enjoyed travelling with. I mean wholeheartedly and happily. So for the most part, I travel alone, drive alone and in my youth trekked alone.

I was going to visit my daughters in Bombay and in Goa, I had lots of luggage, stuff that I wanted to give them and new stuff for a newly arriving baby, better in the car than trying to get on a flight.

The drive south was one I was wanting to do for a while. I was hoping to do a purposeless one, this became somewhat time bound. Still a journey that I enjoyed very much and share because I like writing stories.

The month is January – I mention daily driving times because someone may like to follow the route.

My first leg anywhere is my very beautiful drive down the mountains from the Kullu valley to the plains of the Punjab. It’s always an abundance of vistas that please. Mountains with snowy peaks to green orchards and forest, the river that gleams alongside, turning into reservoirs and canals but still the amazing blue water. Fields of green wheat separated by stands of tall poplars. Culminating in the gardens of my ‘Pind’ home.

From ‘Pind’ to Gurgaon is a drive that I drown with music.                                                                                                                                                        

Gurgaon to Ajmer 10:45 – 1600 hrs

 A painless journey, so far, good roads, no truck jams. It’s happy making to see the terrain change from fields of yellow sarson to the scrubby desert. There were camels and camels carts still, which was nice to note. I reached Ajmer just short of 1600 hrs. The Chitvan resort which Ajay suggested is just off the highway before entering the town and a nice, tidy place set amidst lawns. 

The staff is willing and helpful.The cold coffee was very good. The bonfire in the lawns was a lovely touch, reminiscent of many camp evenings. I got a very good tomato soup with slightly oily croutons. All in all very pleasant.

Tomorrow I shall head to Udaipur and the Titardi Garh castle. It should be interesting, because they called as soon as I booked and a charming gentleman gave me directions and advised which route to take. Specifically not the main highway, but a state highway. So it feels like another good day in the offing. 

16 Jan  10:15 – 14:15 hrs.

I’m seriously over estimating these distances. I think I calculate with hill drive syndrome, and these are broad flat roads with, so far, barely any traffic. Yes there are trucks – but rather orderly and I’m doing a very happy, photo stop drive.

The direction to not take the highway were endorsed by a truck driver I spoke to at the petrol pump. It’s apparently under widening construction and the trucks make for threading the needle driving, so I was very happy to find myself on this picturesque smaller road, with beautiful vistas of the low hills of the Aravallis and this lake filled part of Rajasthan.

Titardi Garh, is a little fort up on a hill. The young couple who are my hosts are charming, they have fixed 2 guest rooms in this somewhat crumbly fort, which was used to house a garrison of men and so not a palace fort. They have renovated and converted one courtyard for their living quarters. There is a lovely garden and they also grow their own vegetables and other staples in their surrounding farmland. All in all a great find. I have a well appointed room overlooking the village. Arrived in such good time that a nicely chilled beer is my compensation. Sitting out on the terrace watching women working in the fields below and lazy birds circling overhead, I’ve forgotten what I should do…? The very joy of time and space for nothing. Another bonfire and a drink, lovely people to converse with, a very nice dinner with Gulab jamuns – it’s my kind of travel.

From the Courtyard at Titardi Garh
Courtyard at Titardigarh

17 Jan 9:45 – 1600 hrs. Udaipur to Dahej 

A marvellous drive through the continuing hillocks of the Aravali’s into the rather lush fields of Gujarat. From flat roofed houses to weathered tiles, different garbs and road signs in a different language. Chai stop chats are the best. Took state highways instead of the National highway, again. In Gujarat they are amazing, better than anything anywhere else. This state is clean……! The trucks drive on one side and give way – an effortless, dream drive. I sometimes wonder how the same truck driver in UP who follows no rules, will do so in another state? What code do they follow – truck telegraph? I must ask the next time I meet a trucker.

Dahej, is a natural, deep water port of  historic importance as the map below shoes. The maritime history of this western coast is so full of romance and adventure. A trading port for traffic from Persia and as far as the Mediterranean. The Gulf of Cambay also is perhaps the site of a civilisation pre dating the Indus Valley. All of this wondrous stuff had my imagination on overdrive, not very practically and I was looking forward for the chance to visit the area.

Imagine my disappointment when I arrived in what has become a huge industrial estate. Obviously, there must be, somewhere, the bits that I might like to discover, put this trip did not allow that exploration. Luckily, because of the industry it had a good business hotel that was very happy to welcome it’s one, lone woman traveller.

Google maps and I do different time estimates as I said earlier- she said I would arrive at 1800 hrs, and as the journey  progressed it kept getting shorter. Finally arrived at 1600.hrs and a jolly good thing too, because it took me an absolutely hilarious two hours to get a transit liquor licence to buy beer to sake my fatigued thirst and to cool down as the weather gets warmer.

Gujarat is a dry state and that very life giving, cold, refresher after long drives is not openly available. Luckily, this nice hotel had a ‘wineshop’. Which was a very welcome surprise and I asked if anyone could buy alcohol here. 

No. No Madam, must have licence.

How to get licence? 

I will make for you, said the nice gentleman at the wine shop.

A delighted me thought, great, lets do this. 

First I had to prove that I had come from out of state, but I had no flight or train ticket. This lovely, confused man asks:

How you came then, madam? 

By car. 

 Ah, taxi. 

No my own car.

From where.

From Himachal Pradesh

Your car from Himachal? Yes

Your own car? Yes.

Then very good madam, we use registration of car for licence. Just like that, all sorted.

We needed many other identification papers and they had to be scanned and uploaded and by the end of this marvellous exercise Mr.Wineshop man and I were fast friends. Finally he says, done madam, what would you like to buy. It is by now 1800 hrs and the sun is way over the yardarm. So I ask for six cans of beer. 

6 cans!? Yes please. 

But you are here for only one night? Yes I am. 

A little disapproving of his new friend he gives me 6 cans. The hotel staff very kindly provide me with a little ice box and my evening is replete.

I did not drink all six that evening.

18 Jan 9:45 – 1600 Dahej to Bombay

Starting from Dahej, dear google took me through the heart centre of Baruch old town; markets, mosques, under the not ready flyovers and eventually over a one way bridge with two way traffic till we hit a bit of the highway which was functional and encountered the Bombay traffic. Stacked up traffic and delays, but its odd how when you know that it is a 19 minute delay, as per that all knowing Google, you relax through it instead of flapping and wondering how long it will be. Home in good time after another enchanting day of discovery. 

Not just the towns and people but also an understanding of the way the mind reacts. Being forewarned as opposed to left guessing about the size of traffic jams, somehow made it alright to be sitting and waiting.

 How much joy there is trying to drive, inadvertently through the tight heart of a little town, when there is so much to gawp at and you find an adventure rather than an inconvenience.

A few days in Bombay with my daughter, where I got asked multiple questions from all I met. About driving alone, being scared, being brave. I rarely know how to answer such. I have been travelling alone for many years and have always encountered pleasant, helpful, kind people. From truck drivers who have helped me change tyres, given me lifts and refueled empty tanks when I was young and thoughtless. To villagers who open their homes and hearths and share stories. Roadside ‘dhabhas’ with the best food who in the old days had ‘charpoys’ which you could sleep on. To be sure I only did that once – in the Punjab – where I felt rather safe surrounded by my turbaned brethren and an old truck driver befriended me. I would not suggest that be done now.

However, I think it is more the will to do and keep your wits about you – not put yourself in situations which could be difficult. Be polite and courteous and you get it in return. That’s my experience.

22 Jan 1020 – 1820 Bombay to Ganpatiphule

This was a long drive on really bad roads and left me rather exhausted. Took that main highway – which even here is under construction and a right mess, with those terribly driving trucks all over the road, making for tense driving with no pleasure time to stare and smile. 

The terrain through the ghats was lovely – but next time I will use my instinct and take the small roads. It was a sigh of happiness to get to the MTDC guest house, right on the beach, cold beer and terrible food. Nice large rooms with balconies to watch the sunset. Temple noise next door, an amazing beach which stretched for miles with people only concentrated around the temple. A place for long walks; sea, sun, solitude or crowds. Both in abundance. Fascinating.

23 Jan 10;30 – via sindhudurg to Deobag.

 A drive along breathtaking vistas, along the coast all the way, small, small road, no traffic. I had only heard about the empty coastline of Maharashtra. It was amazing to see the views of miles of cliff and beach, little fishing villages, huge river estuaries with colourful boats. Fisherman mending nets, a slow, easy pace to the little markets that we crawled our way through. Bundles of lush, fresh vegetables and packed market stalls. Nobody moves out of the road so was not possible to take photographs….just in the mind eye.

Arrived at the ferry point for the sindhudurg fort at 2:30. The ferry was below the jetty because the tide was low. There was no compunction on the part of the ferry captain to ask us to roll up, trousers, skirts, saris etc and wade out to it, seemingly a completely normal occurrence. 

The fort is in a state of abandonment with squatters living inside and little snack shops. However, the outer walls are still mostly intact and I could totally imagine it in its heyday gaurding the coast. 

The fort was built from 1664 – 1667, most of these coastal forts were constructed during the time of Shivaji, the great Maratha ruler, to counter rising Portuguese, Dutch and English colonisers occupying more and more of India like a slow tide. During his reign he was rather successful at curbing this tide, but as history shows, it was incessant and did eventually take hold and leave it’s own marks on our history. 

It was a story walking the ramparts. The gun turrets and batteries with their ancient pulleys were still standing. A little door at the bottom of the south side leading out to a sheltered beach must have been a hidden egress. I sat and stared and imagined those small boats, manned by brave men, heading out to battle the huge, sea faring ships of the would be colonisers. The Maratha navy was a green water navy and their battle tactics were guerilla like, heading out of their hidden inlets like stingrays, attack from the rear where the high mounted guns of the big ships couldn’t bear. Strike low at water level and retreat back into the inlets the big ships couldn’t get into. They had a string of Forts on almost every large inlet or port along the coast, well into Konkan. Unconquered and masters of the western coast of India till well into the 1730’s when their last great Admiral, Kanoji Angre died.

Ancient trade routes

From the fort I went looking for places to stay along the Tarkarli – Devbagh peninsula. Every home is turning into a homestay and tourism is on it’s way, however, it’s mainly local and still relatively unspoilt. There are posh resorts – stupidly expensive offering nothing of value and rather charming small places. Found a cabin on the beach – two minutes from the wine shop and that made absolute sense. Watched the sunset from a hammock between coconut palms, with my favourite chiller – pure, cliched romance, but romance all the same.

24 Jan 9:20 – 11:15. 

Waking to the sound of surf and wind. An early morning walk along an empty shore. A laze on the waves as they cradle you and wash away every care that ever was. Not that I have many, but that sense of being bathed in bliss only comes when you float on the water and allow it to wash, all but the moment, away.

The Tiracol ferry; I wanted to relive a childhood memory. When we lived in Goa in my teens, there were only ferries across the main rivers, none of the elaborate bridges that now exist. Today was another happy drive of climbing the ghat through lush vegetation, getting to the top, spreading fields of golden grass with the tiny road meandering through and distant vistas of ocean. Descend again to the next estuary and colourfully swaying fishing boats, lush vegetation and cheek by jowl village homes straggling up the hillside.  Just a happy, happy experience. The Tiracol ferry was exactly like the old ferries we crossed when we were young. Four cars fit in with myriad scooters and bikes. It cost 10 rupees. 

I had arrived in Goa, the hoardings said beer and wine and the Cross and tavern were kissing cousins. 

P.S. My father always said, they started to build the church and then set up the tavern next door to aid the building.

I hope reading it was as much fun as driving it.

The indecision of conditioning – journaling a journey

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.

Snow banks and chocolate with cream

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.

View from Gemoor Khar

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.

Chortens

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.

Gata loops

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.

Tso Moriri

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.

Bharatpur Nala

7th July

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.

8th July

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

Spaces

I’m writing on a flip chart, recording some important bit of information during a rather serious conference. I look up for a moment and am transported to another dimension. Rippling sands and a tent on a land rover.

I’ve done this countless times, walked through the soft sands, ridden over the dunes on camels and in four wheel vehicles, lain under the shifting shade of an acacia or slept under the myriad stars of a breezy desert night.

It never palls – the magic is eternal and one can plug into this special feeling anytime. Just return to those timeless spaces that nurture the spirit and soar the soul.

When it’s combined with a meeting full of like minded people all focused on a social enterprise to make the world a better place – it just made for a memorable few days and renewed my faith in our world.

Driving the same road – does it vary?

Some, but it’s the road from Manali to Leh and it’s magic stays undiminished no matter how often I travel it. There are more people on it, at Gramphoo the chai shop has got left up above the road and Koksar is almost merged, there are a few more dhabas. The meat curry was just as good and the overheard biker conversations just as lurid! The Lahaul valley is greener and more prosperous and utterly beautiful. Jispa is almost a township of many more camps and small hotels. The Padma lodge was nicely located and quite comfortable, though the camp across the road by the river looked much more inviting! Bara Lacha Pass brings back so many amazing memories, not least being of chocolate pudding and cream! The plains of Sarchu and the sculpted rocks beyond are timeless. The Gata loops and the spot where we crawled out from trekking the Tsarap gorge to be discovered by the nice Military policeman, oh so many moons ago. All so familiar, well remembered and so very relivable.The road to Ksokar is paved and what was an abandoned village is a thriving homestay enterprise, though I doubt any of the original owners are there. The lakes themselves have diminished, but the bird life still seems to thrive. Didn’t see the ubiquitous marmots – nor heard the whistles, but there were a lot more Kiangs than in the nearer past.Met some young people doing studies and comparisons – intense and interesting, sure we must have been so too at the stage…..now it was just nice to sit and stare, remember and build a new memory.The intention to go to Tso moriri was canned as some of the team was not feeling upto the altitude, but we drove to Leh via Mahe and enjoyed the drive. The Indus, that grand river, that always gives a thrill…the name evokes tales of travel, romance and adventure! I have never seen it like this – blue and green, such low water levels for this time of year. Lovely to look at but a harbinger of not nice things. Leh is a changed town that I am getting lost in, but it seems a lot of good, positive things are happening and so many young people doing interesting homestays, cafes and trips. The one’s that made it happen for us were Hajra and Mayas friend Jigmet of Mantra Himalaya with his happy cafe and interesting concepts. Behzad with his photography tours and super homestay in Nubra.A lovely meal at a really rather special restaurant called Bon appetite – Jigmet walked us up and up tiny alleys to emerge out into a lovely garden and quaint restaurant. It was dark but I am certain the views were spectacular. The food was excellent – lasagna, Mediterranean Nan was my favourite. Chocolate momos for desert.Driven over the Khardungla into one of my favourite valleys, Nubra. It is a gentle space of vastness. Cross the highest motor able pass into this Shangrila of spreading silver waters and sand. Striated and screed mountains and beautiful vegetation. It’s like land before time, a garden of Eden where all the so called super foods grow in wild abundance. Thorny thickets of ———-abound, Alfa Alfa is fed to cattle, hillsides of springing lavender scent the air. Wild garlic gets crushed underfoot as you walk. It’s an uncanny mix of sere brown mountains and this lush abundance. Clean, clear water and vividly blue skies. I cant get enough of it.We walked slowly up to the monastery where the Dalai Lama is coming next week to hold teachings. The burbling stream ran alongside, the myricaria and roses blushed pink and the lavender sprayed up in beautiful bushels of….I guess..lavender. Spires of poplars spear the blue, blue sky and the willow woven fences make most interesting dividers. You can fill your water bottle from the stream like in the old days. There doesnt seem to be the usual plastic blocking every water way and tree stump. I think I fell in love with a perfect spot. Dinner al fresco surrounded by wild garlic, swaying trees and lanterns, life does not get much better. I say that so often and how blessed it is to be able to do so.A drive across a river bed, a walk up a rocky outcrop in the middle of the river just short of Panamik and found a lovely lake in the middle. Came back to a marvellous picnic laid out by Sajjan and forgot his name. Perfect day – then the dunes at Hundar and hordes of people to see the camels and the dunes , but it is organised and clean most impressive. An evening around the bonfire with excellently crafted Rob Roy’s and a ‘Gajjar Chillum’! Most interesting and utterly hilarious. This is Behzad and Voygr hospitality and it was brilliant.The drive back from Nubra was very quick and we were back at our hotel in record time. The fatigue is setting in and I slept. Dinner at bon appetite again – Behzad invited Kendrup who is the warden at hemis national park and a snow leopard tracker cum conservationist. It was a tremendous honour to meet him and hear of all the work that is now happening in these amazing mountains with both the people and the other life that still manages to co exist. Good to know all these great people that add to the experience. Had an uneventful if beautiful drive to spend the night at the plains of Sarchu in a windy tent. I must say I do not fancy tent living any longer unless it is my own. Woke to rain on the roof and the thought of the Baralacha nalas made for a swift departure. Rained all the way but thankfully we crossed Bara lacha with just a smattering of slippery snow. The icing on the cake was an empty Rohtang it being Tuesday – pure bliss to not have to ask men, women, children in deep winter overalls, sweltering in the hot sun up high, avidly looking for non existent snow! Home by 4 with no crowds at all. Blessed that everything went so right.

Ladakh – A drive over high passes

I love this drive and have done it myriad times. Am doing it again this June with some friends – if there are others that would like to join us please call 9810184360 or mail :

I have copied below the descriptions I wrote years ago – this land stays the same and still touches the soul. This will be our itinerary:

22 June 2018: Arrive at Manali and stay with me at The Lama House.
23 June 2018: Day in Manali for acclimitization – a short hike through temple woods or a picnic and a relaxed day.
24 June 2018: We drive across the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul and stop for the night at Jispa on the banks of the Bhaga river.
25 June 2018: Drive on over the grand Baralacha la – and a wholly changing landscape to camp at Tsokar Lake.
26 June 2018: Tsokar to Tso Moriri – a lovely back trail through meadows filled with Yak herders to the beautiful lake. Both these lakes are breeding grounds for myriad birds and high mountain creatures.
27 June 2018: Tso Moriri to Leh. Hotels and hot baths and wander the shops.
28 June 2018: A day to visit some of the famous monastries, explore the town.
29 June 2018: We drive over one of the highest roads crossing into the Nubra Valley – where the terrain changes again and we see another aspect of these amazing mountains.
30 June 2018: In Nubra – exploring.
01 July 2018: Drive back to Leh.
02 July 2018: Fly out of Leh. ( If you are even thinking of coming book this flight – it can be cancelled but gets harder and more expensive as it gets closer)

No of persons on the trip 3 4 6
Costs per person 96870 89720 89780

I will send the details of what the costs include if you decide to come. Most of us don’t read so much in one go.


LEH MANALI DRIVE.
GRADE :MODERATELY DEMANDING

SEASON: JUNE THROUGH SEPTEMBER

This spectacular road through the highest mountains in the world is open for only 3 or 4 months in the year – from mid June through September – crossing the Pir Panjal, the Greater Himalaya and the Zanskar ranges, it reaches a maximum elevation of 5304m. Calling this a road, maybe conferring more than it’s due, that it is a drivable route: a grand testament of human endeavor is the truth. The 476 km journey over four high passes and some of the most awe inspiring terrain in the world starts from Manali, along the green valley of the Beas river, up the steep switchbacks of the Rohtang Pass at 3978m. The Rohtang forms the divide between the verdant Kullu valley and the stark expanse of rock and glacier, in the rain shadow of the Pir Panjal range.

From Rohtang, the road descends to the Chandra River and follows it to Tandi where the Chandra meets the Bhaga River, little villages with groves of poplar, willow, and potato fields irrigated by glacial streams dot the landscape. The road continues past Keylong (district headquarters of Lahaul) and the last town till Leh, 360 kms beyond. Following the Bhaga River through Darcha and past the pastures of Zingzingbar, starts the ascent to the Baralacha Pass (4892m). “The Pass with the crossroads on its summit” – this grand pass straddles the meeting point of gigantic ranges, offering passage down four different routes, along the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers and into Ladakh and Spiti.
A rough stretch of road descends to the pastures of Sarchu 107 kms from Keylong. Now begin the wide-open spaces, dotted with the amazing textures and colours of craggy mountain faces, the gash of the Tsarap river, with it’s mud sculpted sides. The awesome world of nature’s timelessness dwarfing Man.

Once across the Tsarap river starts the grueling ascent to LachulangLa Pass (5059m), 54 kms from Sarchu. The amazing shapes and colours as you reach the top compensate the hard drive, descend along a little stream to Pang. Beyond Pang, the road crosses the Sumskyal, a deep gash marking the edge of the great Kyangshuthang plains – a massive plateau at an altitude of 4500m. Across the vast expanses of this plain are chances to see the Kyang (Tibetan wild ass), the Nabu (Blue Sheep), lots of marmot, as well as the Pashmina sheep of the Shepherds of Rupshu.
We take an interesting diversion at this point, short of the Tanglangla Pass – at 5325m, the highest point on the highway. 136 kms short of Leh a dirt road east leads to the Tso Kar Lake. We camp at this lake and see the breeding Brahmini ducks, Grebes and Black necked cranes. From Tso Kar we take a little used dirt road past hot springs and meadows where yak herders and goat herds have their summer pastures and taking a circuit north meet the highway in the Indus valley, and onto Leh and the comforts of hotels and hot baths.

(Along the regular route, once across the plain, at Dibring, the road starts climbing across the snowy reaches of the Tanglangla and descends into more inhabited Ladakh, meeting the Indus river at Upshi. Passing the Monastries of Hemis, Thikse and Shey, The road reaches the Bazaar of Leh.)

Leh is located in the Indus river valley at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Kashgar, Tibet, and Kashmir. Its importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. Since the 1999 war with Pakistan, and the consequent development of the Manali-Leh highway, it has become a bustling tourist town, the sights to visit are the Palace and the monasteries, and a wander through the bazaar is essential.

We can do two trips out of Leh: to the Nubra Valley and the Pangong tso lake.

For Nubra we cross the highest motorable pass at Khardungla (elevation 5359 m or 17,582 feet). Khardong La is historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels can still be seen at Hundar, in the area north of the pass. It is an area that has only recently opened to the world. Still only about 45 kms of the valley are accessible. It is a tiny bit of paradise, orchards and wild flowers, the bactrian camels, wide meandering river. A discovery, leading to the highest battleground of the world – the Siachin glacier.

Pangong tso lake: situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to Tibet. Pangong Tso can be reached in a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The road traverses the Changla pass, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. The lake is spectacular, we spend the night in a camp on the banks, you get to see breeding Bar-headed geese and Brahmini ducks. If you are lucky enough to be there on a moonlit night and brave enough to weather the cold, there is magic there too, as there is all over these mountains.
wind sculpted