Day 10, September 8, 2014
Thikse to Jispa, 800km
It was still dark when I walked over to the dining tent at the camp and grabbed a cup of tea. Two camp-helps were busy preparing sandwiches for our breakfast-to-go. The sun rose and lit up the camp and its surroundings – what an idyllic setting to watch the light and shadow patterns the clouds cast on the mountains as you sit by the gently flowing stream. But, we had a lot of road ahead of us today, and four mountain passes to cross. Soon everyone was up and about.
By 6:30 am everyone was at the parking. We had the usual morning briefing by Abhey and then we were off. The water crossing was worse with all the back and forth of our SUVs and it was the turn of the Ertiga to get stuck. We followed. For all our early start the water-crossing cost us a good half hour. Some of us needed to refuel; them SUVs are such diesel-guzzlers! Our petrol car was giving us unbelievable mileage even in the hills (13-14 km/lt of petrol)! The rains had played spoil sport and we had missed out on some of the highs on this trip. We were going to see how the roads were and if all seemed well, add a short detour to Tso Kar. Tso Kar, while no competition to the exquisite Pangong Tso, is an alpine salt lake with its own charm. It is home to a variety of birds as well as Kiangs, the Himalayan wild ass.
We were off to a good start with the roads in decent shape for much of the way. The spectacular mountains around us were of indescribable colour. It was surreal, yet there they were all around me. All of a sudden I recalled the landscapes of Nicolas Roerich, the mountains painted in unimaginable colours; I could even see his brushstrokes on the mountains! All the greens, and browns, and oranges, and purples, they were all there! Don’t take my word for it, get into your car, drive up and see for yourself.
The flatness of the More (mo-ray) Plains comes as a surprise – the flat ground for miles with the majestic mountains in indescribable colours as the backdrop.
Vijay was already feeling a bit tired and tried to catch a few winks as the rest of us grabbed honey-ginger-lime tea.
Unaccustomed by now to black-topped road, we were all game to venture off-road and go seeking kiangs at Tso Kar. We fell behind as there were only so many short-cuts we were willing to take in our sedan. We hesitated at the smallest of streams. Then we spotted a trio of kiangs running about. We made it to Tso Kar, where the rest had lined up for yet another road-trip photo-op. It was picture-perfect.
Tso Kar, the salt lake
Lunch was at Pang which looks like a small camp with its tented dhabas. It consisted of rajma, vegetables, and rice, accompanied by a fiery thecha-like chutney. A side of omelette was just what I needed. We stretched for a bit in the tent that offered everything, including rest! 🙂
The drive down the Gata Loops was exhilarating with Bhawna counting aloud (on the radio-sets), Tambola-style, the 21 loops. The sun was setting and the fast changing light made the mountain face glow red-orange as the low sun hit the plants turning colour.
We regrouped near Sarchu for a rest stop before starting the final climb around 7 in the evening.
Night fell and we had Baralachala, the toughest of the mountain passes, still ahead. On a good day Baralachala is a tough ride. We were going to do it in total darkness. The road, resurfaced every season, was already worn with occasional stretches of ‘falling rocks’ thrown in for added challenge. As if the steep, hair-pin bends with on-coming traffic were not challenge enough. Bhawna, in her calm voice, continued to warn the rest of us about on-coming heavy vehicles, steep curves, and broken roads ahead. Pictures cannot convey the tension of crossing the mountain passes on that night, not that I was in a state to take any. I was on my second ibuprofen; the two aspirins earlier in the day had proven ineffective today. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining and there was no fog. We rode through the water-crossings, and the boulder-strewn approach to the pass, maintaining appropriate distance between us. What a disciplined convoy we were tonight.
Someone called out on the radio to ask the name of the lake below. Lake?! I had eyes only for the road ahead and I wasn’t even driving! We crossed two lakes on the way – Chandra Taal, and Surya Taal. This was no time for pictures. By the time we reached the highway-hotel in Jispa, it was 10 pm and I still had that splitting headache. We all trooped out and the guys were thrilled with the 15-hour drive we had just completed. [For once, faster than what Google maps (above) estimated as 22 hours!] I was just glad it was over and that I had lived to tell you all about it. Abhey remarked that in his experience this had been Baralachala at its worst. For now Ladakh was behind us. We were now in Himachal Pradesh.
Next morning (Day 11, September 9, 2014), as usual, I was up early. Imagine that – me an early riser! I finally found time to sketch a little and walked back to the dining hall for some tea. On the adjoining table sat three foreigners; bikers, I gathered. I asked them about their ride through the Himalayas. They remarked that while Norway, their home, had beautiful mountains, the grandness of the Himalayas was a different class altogether.
Today we had the notorious Rohtang-la to look forward to. For a change, that was a breeze. Ok, a little windier than that. Past the Rohtang-la the landscape changed dramatically – everything turned green. There were pines and cedars, and flowers bloomed all along the road. By sundown we were in Manali .
Anand was leaving for Chandigarh by taxi tonight, but we cajoled him into joining us, one last time, for dinner. We had ourselves a party. Tomorrow, everyone would be on their own.
Manali has been ruined by the ill-planned construction that has come up all over the hillsides. Abhey had found us a hotel on the top, near Hidimba Temple, and all the ugliness below was hidden from sight.
Day 12, September 10, 2014
(Manali to Delhi, 13 hrs)
Langour got us finally and we weren’t sure if we wanted to start for Delhi just yet. We contemplated a lazy day walking the streets of Old Manali. Breakfast was served in the garden – fabulous aloo paranthas prepared by the hotel cook under specific instructions from Vikas.
Hidimba Devi Temple and forest, Manali
Vijay’s brother was scheduled to arrive later tonight so we ditched any thoughts of extending the vacation. But before leaving Manali we payed a visit to the Hidimba Devi temple that we had last visited about 25 years ago. Bharat had suggested we take the Naggar route where we would find freshly harvested apples and artisan cheeses at Manali Cheese.
By the time we had gathered our fruits and cheese it was past noon! The road to Delhi was in poor shape and traffic was bad. At around 8 or 9, we finally stopped for dinner at a highway hotel. We got back on the road but soon I started to feel sleepy and was glad to hear Vikas call to say he was stopping for rest. Even though Vijay said he was fine, I insisted we take a nap. We pulled over to the brightly lit parking area of a dhaba and got some shuteye. An hour later we woke up much refreshed and ready to hit the road. By 3 am we were home.
Final tally: 3062 km over 12 days, and we carried all our garbage back to Delhi!
With that, dear readers, I wind up this year. Hope you have new roads to travel in 2015; I know I will.
Happy New Year!
Thank you, for reading.