I have always loved a road trip. As most Americans of my generation, I grew up with road trips as family vacations. My sister & I would sit in the back of the wood paneled station wagon & usually poke & pester each other and constantly whine “are we there yet” until one or both of my parents would threaten to pull over and punish us both. They are fond memories. So it was with those vacations in mind that I was eager to undertake a road trip on the Manali to Leh Highway. About 15 minutes into the ride my wistful memories were obliterated when a truck sideswiped us & smashed the side mirror. After a loud conversation, lots of hand waving & an exchange of a few hundred rupees, we were back on the road. Ah, Incredible India!
The Manali to Leh highway is 475 km (about 300 miles) and took about 19 hours… so imagine a trip from Portland to Vancouver BC taking 19 hours. That gives you an idea of the condition of the road. Bone jarring is one descriptor. Death defying is another. The road is wide enough for one car in most places, with vertical mountain on one side & a 1000 meters down on the other. So when we met oncoming trucks it was a game of chicken and the trucks were always the victor. (Rules of the road in India: the bigger vehicle always has the right of way…. well, except for cows, cows always have the right of way)
We trudged up, up up & down, down, down 4 mountain passes, the highest elevation being about 17,000 feet. But despite the discomfort of being in a jeep with a suspension built sometime around 1950, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. We crossed pastel blue rivers as I gazed in awe at the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. All under the bluest sky I have ever seen. I know it is a cliché, but it was awesome. (Awesome as defined by Webster, not your 13 year-old kid).
It was at approximately hour 15 that I was completely over being jostled & jarred & thrown about & I wanted to yell “are we there yet?!” I was short of breath and had a constant headache from either (or a combination of the following): the altitude, the constant smell of diesel wafting up through the floorboards or the loud pop music favored by our driver. Whatever. I was done.
We arrived in Leh about 6 pm. Eager for a shower (my pants had dried urine spray on the cuffs after a hasty toilet break on the side of the road, not to mention I was covered in dust & filth ) We were so exhausted & happy to be still & horizontal that we skipped dinner & collapsed after our showers.
Leh is in Ladakh, a semi autonomous region in Kashmir & Tibetan Buddhist enclave. Leh does not feel like the India of guidebooks or Bollywood. It is a starkly surreal landscape: Cerulean blue skies juxtaposed against barren & craggy mountains. And once the sun goes down it is downright frigid. The people here are calm & there are few touts. It is relatively clean & quiet. Ladakh has escaped the violence & political fighting that has plagued the rest of Kashmir. Perhaps it is because it is so physically isolated, perhaps it is because the population is primarily Buddhist or perhaps people are just too busy trying to survive the harsh landscape to fight, but whatever the reason, it makes for a peaceful & unbelievably beautiful destination… even if it is hell getting here.