An eventful account of a road trip from Manali to Leh from the diary of a mother with her little kid
‘A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun ….’
……And when I saw Kareena and Shahid merrily making their way through that one in ‘Jab We Met’, I knew this is the road I had always fantasised travelling on someday.
While the journey from Manali to Leh through national highway 3, generally takes 2 days, I managed to cover the same in 5 days with every bend and curve the unexpected adventure waiting to happen for me.
The ever changing dramatic landscapes throughout the complete 470 kms long stretch of road tested us shocked us as we got to drive at sky high heights and through completely uninhabited lands. While driving through that terrain we were in a permanent state of quandary but when we crossed a ‘Brandy Nullah’ or a ‘Whiskey Bridge’ we burst out in laughter appreciating BRO’s sense of humour. Every moment on the NH3 we realised “life is beautiful”, indeed!
When we started from Manali, the mountains looked so inviting – bathed in the fresh morning sunlight. Throughout the picturesque road, the misty gorges, tall cedar trees and the gurgling Beas gave us company.
Soon, we reached the crown prince of this route, The Rohtang pass. It looked majestic. But the mere thought of ‘pile of dead bodies’ or Rohtang, gave me a spooky feeling. We descended to reach Tandi, the confluence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, Chandra and Bhaga, filled petrol in the car at the last petrol pump in 370 kms. Slowly the landscape changed, mountains laden with thick cover of evergreen forests changed in to such shades of brown which I never knew existed in nature.
Dusk brought in a beautiful sunset with a night halt in Jispa. That night we enjoyed a warm campfire with millions of stars in the sky. Along journey awaited us the next day through the windswept mountain ridges crossing freezing streams.
The cheery chirpings of birds and the soothing sound of the Bhaga river early in the morning left us in a trance. But we had to hit the road for the onward journey to Leh. Colourful prayer flags fluttered in the morning wind as we crossed the emerald coloured Surya Tal Lake surrounded by snow-capped arid mountains which was a visual poetry.
We felt the first pang of mountain sickness here at 16000 ft. By now the adrenaline had truly started pumping in as we reached Baralacha La. I gasped at the first glance of this pristine beauty. In this stretch the car crossed many streams fed by melting glaciers and surely those were hair-raising moments. As the valley opened up in Bharatpur we sought medical help in one of the BRO depot for my friend who was feeling breathless due to mountain sickness. Here we got stuck for 3 hours due to a landslide and then set off on our journey again.
The landscape was undeniably stunning but with such powerful forces of nature at play there was never a guaranteed safe passage. The Whiskey bridge at Sarchu had broken down due to flash floods. To add to our woes the medical condition of our friend was worsening so we had to take him to the Sarchu transit camp for medical attention.
By then it was already dark and fiercely cold. Somehow we arranged a frugal accommodation in one of the desolate tourist camps.
In the tent the sole kerosene lamp made the ambience unearthly enough for me to remember all the ghost stories I had ever heard. The tent had a canvas cloth tied to a pole as the door and it did not look very reassuring. Suddenly I woke up in the middle of the night hearing some scratching sound on the door. As I switched on my torch the noise stopped and I could hear angry growls of a pack of wild dogs in very close vicinity. I was terrified to say the least. But slowly the noise started to faint away, and an eerie silence prevailed. I remained wide awake through the night and soon it was a new day bringing in new hopes.
On a bright new day, I was overwhelmed finding myself surrounded by raw nature among the brown and barren mountains without even a trace of civilisation. By afternoon the traffic started moving. We huffed past the bridge and the vehicle crossed it at a snail’s pace like an old wobbly car.
The sky was the famous azure colour and we were all happy again to be back on the road cruising through hauntingly beautiful landscaped corated with winds wept eroded needle like formations. The road started snaking up to the infamous 21 hair pin bends, the Gata Loops, and to the twin passes of Nakeela and Lachung La.
After we descended, the narrow canyon like road to Pang was flanked by craggy mountain walls and a fierce Tsarap river flowing at the same level. Itwas breathtakinglybeautiful,literally.We didn’t stop at Pang but rushed for the most magical and magnificent part in the Manali-Leh road trip through Moore Plains.It was a straight stretch of road through a massive plain land leading towards the horizon where barren, smooth, round topped mountains kept the clouds company.
Our ascent to the third highest (arguably) motorable pass started after the plains. The view from here was awe-inspiring and felt so tiny in the presence of these majestic mountains and yet at the same time literally on top of the world.It was late afternoon and even before we realised everything was covered in white snow and the driver was worried. That fairytale moment turned into a nightmare soon.
Our friend was slipping in and out of consciousness due to mountain sickness.We were in a state of utter panic and tried descending as quickly as possible. A massive landslide just a few metres ahead of us stopped us and was the worst nightmare that could haunt anybody. It was pitch-dark and on the top of it was snowing, and we were left high and dry there for the night.
The ill health of my friend and all of us getting stuck at such an altitude in a stormy night, together took a toll on me, the anxiety paralysed my mind. Though within moments of the emotional breakdown I gathered myself up and was optimistic that the next morning will bring in much sunshine. We tried to sleep past the hapless night in the vehicle, but the freezing temperature robbed us off that too.Snowstorm had given way to hail storm by then and it was lashing the vehicle with such vengeance as if it wanted to smash it. But the scariest moment was when we suddenly realised a gurgling small stream was flowing under the vehicle.We couldn’t think of anything else but to pray hard for our safety. After three hours which felt like a lifetime, nature’s fury calmed downand the eastern sky was slowly getting lit up. We had survived Tanglang La at 17400 ft altitude with only prayers and hopes keeping us warm. Also, our friend felt slightly better – we felt the worst was over.
At daybreak we carefully descended from the high mountain pass skirting debris and reached the nearest village Rumtse. Here finally I had a rendezvous with Maggi in its ‘way of life’ avatar in the high Himalaya.After soaking up the warmth of the sun for few hours we realised the highway to Leh had got completely washed off by the sudden glacial meltdown the previous night and wouldn’t open for traffic for at least 2 days. We were completely exhausted and needed a night shelter and medical attention for my friend who was almost unconscious. It was his grit that he was holding on to his consciousness. We sought the help of Indian Army, the only hope for tourists at such places. In the army camp we could find a solar phone and called home to let our folks know we were safe.
Since it was late, the soldiers offered us lunch and we were all so hungry that we wolfed down enormous quantities of the simple yet delicious poori-sabzi. Once our minds started working again we understood that the medical condition of our friend could turn fatal. The medic at Army Camp put him on oxygen to stabilise the situation while discussing an air evacuation request. Though it was a beautiful evening we gathered nothing would move before sunrise as is the norm in the mountains.We went back to the vehicle and the soldiers assured us they would look after our friend. One more freezing night in the vehicle under a starry sky.All of us drowned in deep slumber as we were completely worn out. Maybe at midnight, with a jolt I woke up to the petrifying sounds of boulders rolling down the mountains in heavy rains. And I thought I saw some movement in the field in that pitch-dark night. Suddenly two shining marbles stared back at me from outside the car. It was a snow leopard. My mouth went dry.Those eyes mocked at me for a fraction of a second and then it was gone. I gave out a sigh of relief and thankfully rest of the night passed uneventfully.
The next day the bright sunshine in an azure sky woke me up. It was a wonderful day. Rumtse was a beautiful village with small Ladakhi homes and green fields. A Ladakhi lady who was selling tea nearby from her own kitchen greeted us ‘juley’. Her kind smile assured us, life was beautiful.
The army camp informed us that they had arranged evacuationfor our friend by road. While we crossed Gya the village which bore the brunt of the glacial meltdown to our horror we saw mud flowing out through windows of houses, houses half buried under thick slush and roads had just vanished. Soon we came to the end of the village and saw that where once stood a highway, a manmade marvel at that altitude, now the mighty river Indus was flowing quietly. A couple of soldiers waded through the waist deep freezing water carrying the patient on a stretcher to the ambulance on the other side and from there he was rushedto the military hospital in Karu.
The soldiers then tied rope bridges on the river and escorted us safely through that swinging bridge on the other side. Crossing the fierce Indus on a hanging rope bridge wasn’t easy at all for us though on screen – Shahrukh Khan made it look pretty easy in one of his blockbusters. I literally followed the footsteps of the soldier who was walking in front of me or else I would have surely drowned. Balancing on a rope bridge over a fierce river with an 8 year old at tow was the pinnacle of an escapade I could even have thought of. After the heart in mouth adventure finally, we were driving through the beautiful valley of Upshi, our phones again got connected to the rest of the world welcoming us back to human civilization. Life couldn’t have been more beautiful at that moment. At the military hospital our friend was rather stable and the doctors told us to take him to Leh for further care.
At the end of the day, we found ourselves admiring a beautiful sunset from the balcony of our comfortable hotel room in Leh. After much trial and tribulations in the hand of Mother Nature, finally, that was the night when we all enjoyed a hearty meal of steaming momos and thukpas. We remembered the old saying, ‘all’s well that ends well’ and thanked our stars!
From any perspective, the journey from Manali to Leh had epic written all over it. It was an amazing journey. I was lucky to witness the gorgeous landscapes under a veil of torrential rain, on a beautiful morning under the startling azure sky, and in a pitch dark night which turned to a silvery fairy-land with the moon casting her magic on it. The enchanted me amidst all the adventures promised to myself to come on this road again …
About the Writer
Baisakhi Chatterjee Das
Baisakhi a mother of a teenager now, has been a travel enthusiast, yoga person, upcycle artist, animal welfare activist, volunteer teacher at e- vidyaloka. She has worked as a virtual assistant. A traveller by heart , Baisakhi has number of interesting adventures and experiences under her sleeves in India and abroad.
( All the photographs in the story are taken by the writer )