That long trip to Ladakh with friends

We are at about 10,000 feet, driving on a well-lit road, with traffic and safety instructions glowing comfortingly on neon signboards as we travel smoothly onwards. Since it is early morning, you may well ask why the road is illuminated. Well, we are inside the 9 kilometer long Atal-Rohtang tunnel, that’s why! This marvel of engineering is allowing us to burrow right through the tall mountains north of Manali, and onwards to Ladakh. We are six friends in two vehicles, and our Ladakh adventure is just beginning.

Within a few short minutes we are through the tunnel. There is no sudden change in the landscape just as yet. The greenery will start to be replaced with the barren mountains which characterize Ladakh after we cross the high-altitude passes en route. There are a multitude of streams and rivulets that cross the road, and a river accompanies us on our way. We make frequent halts to admire the views and to stretch our legs and keep in abeyance any adverse effects of the high altitude.

Driving past Jispa we press onwards to Sarchu for the night. Gradually, the landscape changes. Tall, jagged peaks capped with snow tower over the rugged mountains in the foreground. Soon we are approaching the first of the high mountain passes that guard the entry to Ladakh – Baralacha Pass. This would provide the setting for a hair-raising experience. I am driving a Mahindra XUV500 behind a friend’s Thar SUV, now being piloted by the least experienced driver in the group. A mistake, in hindsight. Patches of snow have appeared on the road as we climb to the top of the pass. The surface, though pitted with potholes holding puddles of melting snow, is still good. It is at the start of our descent from the pass that the mishap occurs. There is no warning whatsoever. Suddenly, the Thar in front swerves and skids totally out of control. Of course, at this altitude there are no guardrails on the narrow track. It appears inevitable that our friends will plummet down the steep hillside. Miraculously, the 4 wheel-drive gives the vehicle some traction and they right themselves almost at the edge of the precipice. What happened? As we huddle together in relief, the hidden trap reveals itself. Almost invisible against the dark surface of the macadam surface is a large patch of ‘black ice’. A thin transparent layer of ice has formed where the curving track is shaded from the late afternoon sun. It must have been totally invisible to our friends in the Thar. Even a light touch of the brakes had caused their vehicle to lose control. Although we are riding on relatively new CEAT CrossDrive SUV tyres in both vehicles, this is a lesson for the unwary – always err on the side of caution, and be aware of rapidly changing conditions in the mountains.

From Sarchu the drive onwards to Leh would be almost anti-climactic. Yes, we would cross one of the highest motorable passes in the world – Tanglang La, at over 17,000 ft. The most exciting event during a brief selfie session at the top of the pass was when the gusting wind knocked off a friend’s cap from his head and sent it tumbling off into the distance. As we approach Leh, the mountains lose the last vestiges of any vegetation. Marmots appear at intervals, popping up their heads almost comically from their burrows. Golden eagles soar overhead. Late in the day we roll into Leh. The luxury of warm and comfortable rooms, a hot shower and a tasty meal, remind us of the charms of civilization.

The next couple of days are spent in exploring the local market and visiting the ancient monasteries of Thiksey and Hemis near Leh. We marvel at the unique culture of Ladakh. The significance of the prayer flags ever fluttering in the wind – not just the meaning of their specifically arranged colours, but also the meaning of the sacred texts written on their tattered surfaces. The chortens, which you must always pass on the correct side. The shaven-headed lamas, and their lives spent studying the ancient Buddhist texts.

However, the highway calls the intrepid traveler - always! Soon we are off to Nubra valley. The highway would take us over the famous Khardung La. A short visit to the Diksit monastery is followed by an excursion to the sand dunes at Hunder. Thankfully, the authorities now prohibit tourists from dune bashing in their 4-WD vehicles, so people have to contend themselves with riding on the feral population of double-humped Bactrian camels. The ancestors of these animals were once used to transport goods on the ancient Silk Route to and from Ladakh. From Nubra valley we travel onwards to another tourist hotspot – Pangong Tso. Another high-altitude pass needs to be crossed – Chang La. The terrain keeps changing as we move closer to Tibet. The barren valleys have enormous expanses, and the mountains peaks are topped with glittering snow. The play of light and shadow is truly magical. Different shades of earth tones – ochre, tan, taupe – clothe the mountains around us. The crystal clear azure waters of the Pangong Tso shimmer in the sunlight. Gulls fly overhead, their reflections mirroring their swoops and turns in flight.

Our next destination is another lake – breathtaking Tso Moriri. Driving through the remote Changthang region we come across a herd of blue sheep. Some of the adult males have wonderful curving horns. These animals are so sure-footed, clambering around with perfect ease on steep rocky slopes.

However, all good things must come to an end. Almost too soon, before we have even begun to soak in the atmosphere of Ladakh we must return to Leh. It has been a wonderful trip with close friends and we will carry these memories with us for long.


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