Top of the world @ Leh

Year 2002. It was like walking through a dream with your eyes wide open.

You must have heard that one shouldn’t stay long in high mountain passes due to low oxygen levels and resulting high altitude sickness. What if you were to get stuck in one of these passes? Read on……. 

We a bunch of college-buddies have been on the roads since our college days. Trust u me it’s a much bigger ‘kida’ if you have 2+ like-minded roadies in the group. Anyone in the group would dig out something and then everyone starts chasing it.

In one of the evening sessions of June 2002. One of the guys dropped ‘Leh is the place to go, man.’ And the research started. Even on internet, there was very little information available on Leh. The ones available were mostly written by foreigners who had gone on 3-4 weeks bicycle trips.

After gathering whatever info we could, we drew our plan with – places to cover, route, night stays, no of days, vehicle required and total budget. After which we started packing our woolens, sleeping bags rented from Delhi mountaineering club (can you imagine Praveen became a member just for getting the sleeping bags), an aluminium trunk full of cooking gas, utensils and all the eats+drink.

The terrain covered was 2500km and varied. It took us from chaotic Delhi traffic, through serene greens of Haryana/Punjab/Himachal. Beyond Manali we drove through sheer heights, intimidating Rocky Mountains, mystical falls, drop-dead gorges, azure blue lakes, magical mist n clouds, and miles of high-altitude desert plains.

Avg age of the group 30. Members : Ashish, Praveen, Ashok and Pinto (Saarthi)

What I am sharing, is the trophy which’d remain with us for rest of our lives. These are most cherished memories of our trip through the land of amazing sights and an exhilarating experience (Delhi – Manali – Leh – Pangong and back). The trip took us 9 days and was full of excitement, challenges and pains (couldn’t fathom which was more, mental or physical).

Day-1 : Delhi to Kirat Nagar

Trivia                     22 Aug’02, 6pm to 1 am, 410km

Landmark            Chandigarh

The Sumo booked by us developed some snags in Delhi and our start got delayed by 12 hours. What an auspicious start!

Day-2 : Kirat Nagar to Marhi (below Rohtang)                                                                                                  .

Trivia                     23rd Aug’02, 8am to 5pm, 200km, Landmark – Kullu/Manali

The rains beyond Manali and nearing Rohtang was a great dampner. We were forced to stop at Marhi as reaching Keylong was out of question. Spent the night inside a Pahari dhaba with makeshift bed and dhaba owner and a goat for company.

Day-3 : Marhi (3400m) to Patseo (3800m)                                                                                                                      .

Trivia                     24th Aug’02, 7am to 3pm, 125km,

Landmark            Crossed Rohtang (3978m) and Keylong (3080m)

It was still raining in the morning. There was no snow in Rohtang Pass. Reached the district HQ Keylong at around noon. Keylong had the only petrol pump before Leh. Filled up Sumo and a 20 ltr can with diesel. There was no electricity at the pump, had a freak accident when the manual pump handle came out and hit my forehead. Wasted 2 hours on extended lunch and for stitches on forehead.

Crossed Darcha, a wide valley with huge riverbed. Crossed the river over two wooden bridges. Reached Patseo around 3pm. Decided not to proceed further, as Baralachla pass would have been freezing cold after sunset and the next camping site was 100km away.

Got 2 rooms in PWD guest [email protected] each, all to ourselves. Spent the evening exploring, cooking, drinking and eating.

Day-4 : Patseo (3800m) to Pang (4757m)                                                                                                             .

Trivia                     25th Aug’02, 8am to 4.15pm, 145km,

Landmark            Baralachla Pass (5030m), Vishal Taal, Bharatpur Camps, Sarchu plains (Himachal/J&K border), Gata Loop, Nakeela Pass (4741m), Lachulungla Pass (5068m)

Crossed 3 high altitude passes. All the group members suffered mild to high headaches (due to rarified oxygen levels). Reference heights of Mussoorie (2005m) Nainital (1938m).

After crossing Baralachla pass we stopped over at Bharatpur for tea and snacks. There were 5-6 locals Who had put up nice + large tents with overnight sleeping facility at reasonable rate of Rs 30/ bed/night and Rs 30/meal but it was at an unreasonably high altitude (4600m).

We reached Sarchu plains at 12.30pm. Stretches of green plains surrounded by mountains on both the sides and a river flowing in the deep gorge between the plains. This is the HP/JK border where HP tourism had put up tented accommodation. The HP tourism buses going from Manali take 2 days to reach Leh, The bus passenger are provided night halt at Sarchu.

Notice the strange statue kind of shapes carved out on the walls of gorge. These have been formed by water flowing from snow peaks above and thereafter polished by winds. It was overcast and it rained a little.

Gata Loops21 hairpin bends started from 4102m and ended at 4667m over 9km. The Manali route is used by all the commercial vehicles for 6 months to carry 12 months supplies to Leh for locals as well as army. These loaded trucks meet their waterloo in Gata loops. They do not get enough momentum to ride through the sharp curves and if they stop for letting pass the oncoming traffic. Re-starting became a huge challenge for them. It took us 1 hour to pass through the consequent jam.

Crossed Nakeela Pass (4741m) and 20kms later Lachulungla Pass (5068m). Had decided to reach Pang by 5pm. It started raining at Lachlungla pass and we were still 25km from Pang.

14kms before Pang our worst nightmare came alive. Being a high-altitude desert, rains here is exceedingly rare. The mountains were made of mud like loose soil, with rocks and stones hanging precariously. It was raining mildly and in 2-3 places we saw small stones and falling from the mountain side.

We were second vehicle to hit a land slide. It slid just across the petrol tanker ahead of us. Both the tanker and we reversed back hurriedly. Both the wall below and above the road were scary and looked prone to sliding. On the other side of landslide a passenger bus turned back towards Pang. We thought that they would inform some one (BRO/road maintenance team) and sooner or later help would arrive. We kept waiting inside the car for rains to stop. 2 hours later an Army gypsy came along and after inspecting the slide, the jawan decided to try his luck with his 4×4. With some help from 4 of us he could cross over. We too attempted crossing but in vain. I decided that Praveen and Ashok should leave for Pang in the army gypsy and get some help (??).

It rained throughout the evening and was pitch dark. I and driver Pinto were shit scared that something is going to fall on us. Cooked one maggi for ourselves inside the Sumo. Threw half of it. Guess the height 4800m with low oxygen and freezing cold was taking its toll. Slept at around 8 but had severe headache throughout the night. The Delhi mountaineering sleeping bags with feather inside came very handy. Both of us woke up at 11pm with severe headache, took 2 dispirin and drank lots of water. We saw 3 sumo’s and their passengers trying to crossover the landslide. They did manage to cross with multiple shoves and heaves. We both decided to go to sleep and try crossing in the morning when it stops raining.

Day-5 : Pang (4757m) to Leh (3500m)                                                                                                                                  .

Trivia                     26th Aug’02, 6 am to 4pm, 175km,

Landmark            Morey plains, Tanglungla Pass, Upashi

Next day morning was bright and sunny. Rain had stopped and we saw that the overnight struggle by various vehicles had flattened the landslide a bit. We could cross after 2-3 attempts.

Reached Pang at 7.30am. Ashok and Praveen were very happy to see us. They too had a terrible night worrying about us. There wasn’t any JCB in pang and labour would have started by 9am. Had our breakfast and relaxed in sunlight. Our Driver Pinto a healthy Jat boy was terribly sick with convulsions and headache. We decided that he should sleep in the back seat and I should try my driving skills on Sumo. Coming from Fiat Uno experience, the first 10 kms were anxious but soon I got used to the power and size of the vehicle.

Thereafter the drive through the sheer green landscapes of Morey plain (40kms of flat terrain), surrounded by awesome snow peaks and long winding roads @4800m. For a Roadie it was a ‘dream come true’.

Reached Tanglungla pass 5362m @11am. This pass was the most beautiful, it’s spread and the view gives you goosebumps. Check out the pic taken at 11:04, standing at the top and looking at N no of 4k-5k mountains below you with sun-cloud playing with them. It was just amazing, Carpenters with “I am on the top of the world, looking down on creation………” came out naturally and we sang it out full throat, with our hands spread wide.

The downward ride thereafter was smooth, with 15 minute stop-over for road widening work done by BRO for fast approaching winter and the snow.

Reached Rumtse/Gya, the gateway to Leh. The small village with its typical houses, ripe paddy fields, gompas, stupas were simply awesome. Indus river accompanied us throughout our way up to Upashi.  Pand to Upashi 125km.

Our first shots of Leh valley. The terrain was rough and very dry mountain were very rocky/muddy/sandy. The only green patches were along the river Indus. Made our first STD call home after 3 nights. Visited the Gompas

  1. Hemis 2. Stakna 3. Thicksey (biggest in Ladakh) 4. Shey

Our stay was at Norbulinga Guest house (phone 52941). It was 1 km behind the main market and just below the Leh Palace. The owner was a gentlemen, charged us 450 for 2 rooms. Spent the evening exploring the Leh main market.

Day-6 : Leh (3500m) to Pangong Tso (4350m)                                                                                                                 .

Trivia                     27th Aug’02, 11.30am to 8pm, 200km

Since we were almost a day behind our schedule due to various fiasco’s en-route. Woke up early and went to Leh Palace. Sight from top was overwhelming but gompa was kinda artificial.

Went to Deputy commissioner’s office for getting permission for Khardungla pass (5600+ mtr, highest road in the world) and Pangong lake. Got the permission for 27th and 28th by 11.30am. Given the tight schedule we decided to forego Khardungla pass. Leave for pangong lake and stay overnight by the lake side.

Left Leh @ 1.30pm with 30 ltr diesel in a can. Crossed Changlangla pass (5360m), the 3rd highest motorable road in the world and on to pangong 150km from Leh.

By the time we reached Pangong lake (4652m), It was almost 6pm. This high mountain 134km lake with 1/3rd in India and 2/3rd in China is salty. Reference Naini lake 1.5km 1938 mtr. Entry was restricted by permission and army checked our permits and ID at 5 different places. We were required to submit photocopies of our permit at every check point.

There was only an ITBP check post at the beginning of the lake. No other sign of life. Water was crystal clear, and you could see pebbles of various shapes and colour. Lake was surrounded by mountains, some barren some snow-capped. We drove 5kms alongside the lake. I don’t have words to describe the place, the lake, its enormity, the grandeur and the sheer ecstasy it generated in our souls.

Camping was not allowed and it was not advisable also. We started back around 6.45, not sure where and whether we’d find a place for night stay and get to eat. Travelled some 40km, en-route found a camp site (5-6 rooms) but it was full. Around 8pm we saw some lights in a village, and  landed at off route riverside camp called Changla Queen. Owner offered tent and PVC cabins @100/bed. We finally negotiated it to 30/bed.

Day-7 : Changla Campsite to Sarchu                                                                                                                                     .

Trivia                     28th Aug’02, 7am to 6.30pm, 320km

Next day morning we discovered it was very serene and beautiful riverside camping site. Enjoyed our breakfast aside the river. It felt very bad to leave early but I guess we were getting homesick and there was a long journey ahead. Covered 320kms with a half hour stop for lunch. Both me and pinto were now sharing the driving. The weather was overcast and there were minimum stoppages for pics as everything had been shot by all 3 of us on our way up.

Our 2nd scariest moment of the trip. This time also it happened 5kms on the other side of Lachulunga pass. We were sure that L baba was not happy with us. It was drizzling and bone chilling cold @5000 m. There was small landslide ahead and a fully loaded truck, while trying to avoid the slide, was precariously hanging on the edge of the road, with its left hind tyre off the road. On its own the truck just couldn’t manage to move an inch. The driver was running helter-skelter and finally gave up. Fifteen minutes later an oil tanker coming back from Leh agreed to try and pull it from our side. Had I been the tanker driver I would have shivered. We gave the stuck up truck 50/50 chance and we were scared that either both will go down or we will be stuck here for another night. After 5-6 attempts spread over 30 minutes, the truck was pulled out. Hats off to these brave drivers who risk their lives and bcoz of whom the lifeline supplies to Leh residents+army is maintained. You’d understand the guilt with which I took these snaps.

Stayed overnight at HPTDC tents in Sarchu. It rained and the winds were terrible, we were initially worried that the tent will blow away but with time and O’monk we grew confident. Cooked our meal and slept at 9.30pm.

Day-8 : Sarchu to Kullu                                                                                                                                                             .

Trivia                     29th Aug’02, 7.30am to 8pm, 265km

The strain and fatigue had started showing on everyone. We just drop and kept recounting our experience. Had a scare below baralachla pass, when Pinto on Praveens suggestion took a shortcut thru a dirt road. It looked quite easy from top but was really bumpy. We decided to reverse but the accelerator wire gave up. Pinto somehow managed to repair it and we descended very slowly.

In the evening we shopped for a while in Manali and drove down to stay in Kullu.

Day-9 : Kullu to Delhi                                                                                                                                                                  .

Trivia                     30th Aug’02, 9am to 8pm, 530km

For past 9 days we had been driving continuously for 8 to 11 hours. Everyone was completely exhausted.

However, the triumph of having done it. The once in a lifetime experience, the amazing sights, the scares and pains were shining in everyone’s eyes.

While it seems that we have achieved our Niravana as Roadies.

But I am sure the spirit and ‘having tasted blood’ through this one, there will be many more in future.

Amen!

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