In Leh, Alive

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Monday 11th July

Wow. We've made it to Leh, and all I can say is that it's a once in a lifetime trip - you couldn't imagine more breathtaking scenery if you tried, but it's certainly not a drive I'm keen to repeat in a hurry.

Hypothetically, it's an 18-hour drive from Manali to Leh, through some of the most barren landscapes and over some of the highest passes in the world. We left Manali at 3am yesterday, and arrived in Leh at 11 this morning. Before departure, the driver walked around the jeep and gave each tyre a good kick, then returned to his seat, nodding to himself in satisfaction. I'm not sure whether it was comforting to know that he cared about such things as tyre pressure, or disconcerting to see that this was as far as the vehicle check was going to go.

The scenery was dramatic to say the least: ranging from hillsides swathed in bright greens, to harsh brown cliffs towering around us, to higher areas covered with thick, virgin snow. Melting glaciers created waterfalls in every direction you looked. The colours were unreal - sharp and crystal clear, as if viewed through some colour-enhancing lens.

The temperature range was equally dramatic, from one of the coldest nights I've ever spent, to searing heat during the day. In the hour after sunrise, shawls, fleece-lined jackets, socks, then jumpers came off in quick succession, replaced by lashings of sunblock (yes, even I've been religious about SPF at this altitude, after burning to a crisp at Gangotri!).

The terrain made for incredibly challenging driving - in places the road became a river, in others it was intersected by waterfalls. It wound and twisted and turned along cliff-edges, over bumps and potholes, plummeted into valleys and climbed sharply up again on the other side. Early this morning, after topping the world's second highest pass at 17 582ft, we crossed 2km of iced-over road, again along a cliff-edge, of course.

But the scariest thing wasn't the road conditions: it was the fact that, between his previous job and this one, the driver had slept for three hours. One hundred and eighty minutes of shut-eye for this mammoth journey. This information emerged a few hours into the trip, courtesy of a Nepali passenger who was the only one able to communicate with the driver. From that moment on, I was certain I was going to die, and I wasn't the only one.

Four hours into the drive, all traffic stopped to wait for a landslide to be cleared - several large rocks had to be blasted with explosives before trucks could move the rubble away. A caravan of jeeps waited five hours in the sun before the road was cleared, and half an hour later we had lunch at the police checkpoint that was supposed to be our breakfast stop. Several dhabas on the roadside served up the staple of dal, sabji (overcooked vegetables) and rice, with generous doses of carbon monoxide thrown in by the never-ending stream of hooting lorries and jeeps vying for road-space metres from our tables. Still, it was good to finally get some grub! Another meal option was Maggi instant noodles which, at the rate their popularity is rising, could soon be contesting rice as the new staple of the area and producing another population of MSG addicts.

Were there toilets at the dhabas? You must be joking. Why would anyone want one of those?

Of course, despite the five-hour setback, the driver was still determined to complete the trip in one shot - this would mean he'd have been on the go for 24hrs with a three-hour nap beforehand. I was getting more and more nervous and adrenalin supplies were running short. I'd long since forgotten about the scenery, and my only view was through the front windscreen as I watched the driver's reactions to potholes, water and blind bends to ensure he was still conscious. To my mind, it was a certainty that he would nod off at some point - it was just a matter of when - so whenever we passed through a valley where the road was level with the ground on either side, I'd think to myself, "OK - NOW! Here's a good spot to fall asleep; do it NOW!" At one point he pulled over really close to the cliff-edge to stop and check a tyre, but the three of us watching the road all assumed he'd dozed off, and three arms shot out and grabbed the poor guy by the shoulders! It took about 20 minutes for my heart to return to its usual position in my ribcage.

A few hours after dark, just before we made our dinner-stop at a tent-camp called Pang, I called a mutiny amongst the passengers. When we stopped, I approached the Nepali and gave him my ultimatum for the driver: after dinner he should sleep at least three hours or several of us would not get back into the jeep; in addition, Mica and I had not paid our full fares and he would not receive the balance unless he slept here. Message delivered, I joined the others in a lovely white tent full of low, carpet-covered benches and tables; leading off this was another tent full of mattresses.

Never, ever, have I felt greater relief than when, halfway through our dal, sabji and rice, our Nepali friend entered the dhaba to say we'd be spending the night here and leaving just before dawn. This gave the driver at least six hours' sleep, which was probably more than he'd had in a week.

We paid Rs30 each to dos down in the back tent, in the clothes we'd been wearing all day: our packs were on the jeep roof under 130kg yak cheese, brought all the way from Nepal to be sold at a healthy mark-up in Leh.

We finally entered the Indus Valley this morning, and reached the first real town (as opposed to tent-camp) in time for breakfast. Our passports were checked for the third time (military presence is huge in the region due to the proximity of both Pakistani and Tibetan borders) and I actually found a "real" toilet, though in this case the stony ground outside might have been preferable.

We drove another two hours - the first fertile ground we'd passed on this trip, the green of the trees and plantations contrasting beautifully with the stark, rocky mountains surrounding us. We passed a few villages and gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and numerous stupas (Buddhist shrines) and then, with relief and joy, arrived - alive - in Leh.

At 3500m, nestled between huge mountains, Leh - capital of the Ladakh region in the state of Jammu & Kashmir - is dry and dusty, but an oasis compared to most of the lifeless region in which it lies. All around, birch trees rise against a rocky backdrop, main streets are interconnected by narrow, winding passageways between high stone walls, and glacial streams are channelled in all directions through tiny canals. The people, mostly of Tibetan culture, are friendly and greet passers-by with the Ladakhi "Jullay".

We found a decent enough guesthouse with a great view from the balcony, but Mica wanted to explore other options, so we spent the afternoon walking around central town and the Changspa area, just out of town, checking out other hotels. Having seen at least a dozen, we realized that a room with attached bathroom generally costs double what we're paying, so we should stick with ours. It then emerged that the only reason Mica wanted to find another room was her irrational fear of insects: the drain in her shower didn't have a cover and she worried what would crawl out of it whilst she slept! I suggested we find her a large, flat stone to cover the drain overnight (perhaps even paint a mini no-entry sign on it?); she was delighted with the idea and all was solved.
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