2015 India – The Road to Leh

Ten and a half hours, including a short stopover in Zurich, after take off in Dusseldorf we touched down in New Delhi. Customs went very smooth, especially compared to our first visit, and neither did we have to wait to long for our luggage. Coming out of the arrival hall we were greeted by a forest of nameplates welcoming people from all over the world. It was amazing I found the sign with my name on it and we were friendly greeted by Shishi, the representative from Savion with who we booked our new adventure. Minutes later we were absorbed by the chaotic travel of New Delhi. The streets were packed in spite of the time of day, it was well over midnight by now. We passed some areas where we could see homeless people sleeping at the side of the street and strangely enough this did not chock us the least, it was a sad face indeed but we were expecting this. We checked in at the Metropolitan, a fantastic 5* hotel and were given our tour itinerary and vouchers. Then it was time for a shower, our first Kingfisher beer and a well deserved sleep. welcome to India Sir!

Next morning the alarm went of far to soon for our liking, we had slept well but way today short. A shower mede us feel much better after which we indulged in a true Indian style breakfast. The potato curry was as good as we remembered from previous trips!

Our guide was waiting for us in the lobby and after we discussed our itinerary we were on our way. The streets of Delhi were packed as expected and even though it was not our first time we were amazed how the traffic found its way without major accidents. Although lanes were clearly marked it was something that was simply ignored by the numerous drivers.

Our first stop of the day was the Swaminarayan Akshardan temple. We were blown away by the sheer beauty of the place and the fine details of the carvings. Jitender, our guide, turned out to be a walking library and had interesting stories to tell about everything we saw. Unfortunately we were not allowed to make pictures in the complex but that was something we simply had to respect.

Next place on our itinerary was the Humayan tomb. The similarities with the Taj Mahal were striking, not strange as Jitender told us this place was the inspiration for the construction of the Taj. We loved strolling around the place and get a feel of the grandeur of times long gone.

The Bahai Lotus temple, surrounded by 9 turquoise ponds was another place we had not seen on our first visit. Shaped as a full blooming lotus it was a place of worship and meditation. It was located in a beautiful garden, simply amazing how green the grass was and how clean the place was.

The cleanness of Delhi was another thing that struck us. True there is still room for major improvement but compared to our first visit we were pleasantly surprised. Time flew by quickly and we were getting a bit peckish so we arranged a late lunch. Butter chicken, stuffed tandoori mushrooms, basmati and naan. The flavors were simply divine so needless to say we returned our plates empty.

Quatab Minar, a complex with worlds highest stone tower was another impressive site to be seen. It had a long and violent history and changed appearance after each change of power. Jitender told us all about it before we were left by ourselves and could experience the compound at our own pace.

Officially we were still supposed to visit a Sikh temple but by now our senses were overloaded and we were getting tired, the thought of a refreshing shower was to tempting we asked to be brought back to the hotel.

Having enjoyed a late lunch neither of us was very hungry so a King Fisher ended of our first day. It had been a fabulous day and both of us were extremely happy to be back in India for our next adventure.

Another early rise as the alarm went off at 5:30. The restaurant was not ready to receive guests yet but still we managed to get a small bite to eat. After that we were brought to Delhi railway station where Shishi was already waiting for us to escort us to the Kalka Shatabdi express for Chandigarh. A train trip is an experience not to be missed whilst in India so we were delighted our trip to the Indian Himalayas started off with one. It’s truly amazing what is going on, food and drinks were being brought along almost constantly and everybody seemed to be fully involved in that little space assigned to them. The lack op personal space and the cacophony of noises and smells were overwhelming at times but that is just one of the charms whilst traveling in India.

Shortly after 11:00 we arrived in Chandigarh. Like in Delhi the air was hazy and full of moist but we considered ourselves lucky as in spite of traveling in monsoon time we had not seen more rain than a couple of drops. Apparently 15 minutes before we arrived there was a terrific downpour but the only thing remaining from this were the flooded roads. When we booked this trip we knew we would be traveling in monsoon season but we are sure the skies will turn blue as soon as we will reach greater heights. Another driver picked us up and brought us to our Hotel. It did not look much from the outside but once we saw our room we were pleasantly surprised.

After having checked in we enjoyed a wonderful lunch. Punjabi chicken curry, paneer tikka masala and of course we could not miss out on basmati rice and garlic naan. A short power nap later we headed towards the famous rock garden, a lifetime dream of Mr. Nek Chand. He must have been a very creative person indeed as the garden could definitely been described as something different.

Our next stop was Sukhna Lake and we must admit we were not very impressed. the locals seemed to love it though as there was plenty of activity going on. Three Sikhs started to talk to us and even invited us to go for a glass of wine together. Really nice people but we politely thanked for the invite as our driver was waiting for us.

Chandigar, the city beautiful. It’s India’s only planned city in a strict gridline and lots of trees and parks. Whether it is beautiful one can discuss but it is certainly much more appealing and has a higher standard of living than any other Indian city we have seen so far, but then it also appears to be quite clinical, one can’t have it all…

We had already noticed the landscape became slightly more hilly but still no sight of the mighty Himalayas. A good excuse for another early wakeup call so we had time enough for a shower and a good breakfast. At 7.30 we checked out and started our journey to Manali, at the foothills of the Himalayas. The first hour and a half the road was splendid and we enjoyed the sights of agriculture and little villages we passed. Steadily the sky was getting darker and the rain heavier. We passed the first tollroads we ever saw in India and were making good progress.

And then the quality of the road changed and we were in for a bumpy ride from now on. We left Punjab and had now entered the state of Himalach Pradesh, crawling upon the misty foothills of the Himalayas. Although the skies were grey we had some fantastic views of the valleys and this is where we also spotted the first monkeys. The road was terrible and we were competing for space with the many trucks going up and coming down and driving where there were the least potholes. Our adventure had now really begun and both of us were extremely excited.

At times we drove through a thick layer of clouds and we could hardly see anything, then we looked down into a misty abyss while just minutes later we had stunning views over the valley and a large brown river, saturated with soil from the Himalayas, meandered its way to the plains of India. The first landslides became visible now but they were small ones so they did not obstruct the roads. Soft Indian Music played in the background which gave our drive that wonderful exotic feel. At times we held our breath as our driver hit full brakes to avoid a collision with upcoming trucks, it was his 10th trip already this year so we were confident nothing would happen. Not all were that lucky as at one point we saw two major accidents minutes apart.

Nine and a half hours after we left we made it safe and sound to the Snowcrest Manor hotel in Manali, the gateway to the remote and desolate valleys of Lahaul and Spiti. According to Hindu legend, it was named after the sage Manu after he steered a boat of survivors to safety in Manali during a great flood. The hotel felt a bit tired but then the views were absolutely stunning. We enjoyed a quiet evening and a nice dinner. In spite of the fact we would not be leaving the next day until 10 o’clock we called it an early night, all the traveling excitement somehow had burned us out.

The next day was when our journey turned from simply superb to absolutely spectacular (or should I say insane). When were granted a bit of a sleep in, had an extended breakfast and left Manali after that at 09:45. The first part of our trip was nice as we followed the fast flowing river but once we crossed the bridge to the other shore the fun really started. The road was altering from bad shape to very bad shape and was extremely narrow. Still there were places to let the oncoming traffic pass or takeover before a sharp U-turn. In the beginning we could clearly see the deep valleys below us but after a while we were covered in fog leaving a big pool of emptiness next to us. Scared at times to dying a hundred deaths. At one point I could no longer bare it, took my iPod to listen to some music and close my eyes to switch off from the madness. each time I opened my eyes I got shocked again by the abyss next to me.

Our first stop was at a glacier which seemed to be a popular stop with national tourists. After that we were on the road again till we made it safely to the first pass of the day, the Rathong pass at 3997 meters height. Of course there was a gompa (stupa) decorated with prayer flags sending Tibetan prayers with the wind. After the pass the weather cleared so we could now clearly see where we were going. The scenery was simply stunning. Mountains with snow and ice caps, glaciers, landslides and the odd village. We could hardly believe locals still managed to grow crops over here but the evidence of that was there to be seen.

We stopped at a small settlement for a ginger tea and the traditional momos, a type of dumpling. They tasted amazingly well and we were doubting whether we should order another portion or not when we were told to move on.

By now we were driving over a perfectly paved piece of road so we felt absolutely fine. We passed through Keylong, Jispa and Dracha, some picturesque villages in the middle of nowhere and we could not stop keeping pointing out one after the other fantastic spot to each other. Nature was really showing off in the Himalaya’s!

We had another drink at another settlement before we went on again. Just when we started to feel comfortable the road deteriorated again badly and we steeply went uphill. It was time for me to close my eyes again and take things as they came, there was nothing I could do anyway…

By now we had reached the tree line and arrived in a bare landscape. Bare perhaps but nevertheless extremely beautiful. Both of us were stunned by the beauty surrounding us, It cannot be put to words or set in pictures, one has to experience it by oneself to fully understand the magic of the Himalayas! I had already experienced this during previous journeys but I was really happy to share it with Paul, especially as the journey was far more extreme than I had done before.

Next we passed the Baralacha pass at 4883 meters where we saw an impressive collection of prayer flags waving in the wind. This was the highest point for the day and we started to notice the effects of the altitude and the thin air.

From here the road went downhill. It was a relatively gentle slope which did in no means mean safe. We had to pass oncoming traffic at extremely narrow points, cross a water stream a couple of times and yes, we even reached a point where they were repairing the road before we could continue. It was total madness! Fortunately we did not see everywhere went as we were far to busy absorbing the majestic landscape. Once again it had totally changed, we were now driving through high altitude desert.

After 9 1/2 hours drive we finally completed the 222 kilometer trip and made it to Sarchu, which was located at a slightly more reasonable altitude of 4253 meters. A fixed camp was set up and we were brought to our deluxe tent where the only deluxe features were a fixed bed and ensuite bathroom complete with sink and toilet. As we had expected this we could only laugh at ourselves and went to the central dining tent for a basic but filling bite to eat. After that we returned to our ‘deluxe’ tent where Paul read a bit and I updated our travel story. It was cooling down quickly and before 9:00pm the lights went off. that night we slept with our clothes on…

Unexpected we slept quite well, it had not been cold at all (at least under the blanket) and I only woke up once to go to the toilet and grab a headache tablet, guess I was suffering from mild altitude sickness after all. No alarm was needed and both of us were fully awake shortly after five. A simple breakfast, tea from coca leaves and we were good to go again.

The first part of the trip we followed the riverbank and both of us were enjoying the views. It did not take long however before we started to climb higher and higher and then we reached the point where I simply closed my eyes. The road condition was bad, it was far to narrow and our driver was putting down the gas pedal a bit to deep for my liking. Every now and then I watched, seeing a steep curve ahead of me and it appeared we were going straight on into the abyss…

Fortunately our driver knew the road and we reached the first pass of the day, Nakeela at an altitude of 4739 meters. It was easy to see where the highest point was as it was traditionally indicated by a stupa and colorful prayer flags.

A short descend, even more breathtaking views and we went up towards the next pass. The scenery was changing constantly and neither of us could get enough of it. The Himalayas cannot be compared with anything in the world and can only be described as dramatically beautiful, or like the Indians say:”When God created the Himalayas he was simply showing off…”.

Lachung La, the second pass of the day was the first one to bring us over 5000 meter, 5065 to be precise. We could clearly notice the air was much thinner and every simple move got us out of breath. But looking around we knew it was worth it! The ohh’s and ahh’s were almost constant.

The road seemed to be a bit better, there were less areas that were seriously lacking maintenance but still we thought that to call it a highway as it is officially known is a bit prestigious. About an hour later we arrived in Pang, a small settlement where we had a lunch break and our driver ( we still do not know his first name) could have a well deserved rest.

And then we were on the road again. Both of us had big smiles on our faces as we were thoroughly enjoying this trip. After about an hour we had another tea break at a place run by Tibetan refugees. I had a nice discussion with them about Tibet and got a bit emotional knowing these people will never be able to return whilst I had the chance to experience a bit of Tibet, well, what is left of the original culture.

A bit further on our journey we once again started an ascend until we arrived at Skyangchu Thang, worlds highest plateau which has a length of 42 kilometer and is stunningly flat in this mountainous region. It also meant I had time catch my breath before we started going up again to the last and highest pass for today.

Tanglang La at a whopping 5360 meter certainly made us gasp for breath, the air was amazingly thin and the wind was blowing hard. Still we were doing pretty well and besides my headache of last night showed no signs of altitude sickness. Being so high we had superb views over the valleys below us and the surrounding mountain chains. I simply cannot put the beauty into words, nor can make pictures that reflect the impressions we had, one simply has to experience it oneself.

The descend to the valley, except a couple of hair-raising moments went quite smooth. We had to pass a couple of truck convoys but nothing was as bad as some of the moments earlier today or yesterday. Lots of workmen were improving the surface and at one point we drove over a length of tarmac that was so new that steam was still coming up from it. Another thing that amazed us was the major effort that was made to bring a glass fiber cable to Leh in order to provide 4G internet connection. Almost at the complete length of our journey we could see a trench being digged besides the road and a thick blue glass fiber cable put into it.

The last hour and a half of our trip was simply easy going. We followed the riverbank up to the point where we reached the Indus valley and followed the Indus from there on. There was a huge military presence and we could see military camps everywhere. This once more proves the sensitivity of the area being so close to the Pakistani and Chinese border.

After two days of traveling covering 477 kilometers and reaching a maximum altitude of 5360 meters we finally reached Leh. Yes there were some extremely frightening moments and I am sure more than once our hearts skipped a couple of beats. But would we have missed out? Definitely no! Often the destination is not the goal but the journey and this one was definitely worth every single moment. We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, had dinner at the hotel and went for an early night.

Continue the journey in Ladakh