Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Destination called Leh Road

Ladakh@Rs 924

If you thought the humble paisa can’t buy you nothing, think again. For the 1,026-km bus journey from Delhi to Leh, I paid 90 paisa per km. My entire expense, including fare, lodging and food en route, was a princely Rs 924. On a road journey that’s acquired cult status among travellers globally, it appears almost embarrassing to be paying such pittance for incredible views of a lifetime.
To begin with, the decision to board the bus had to be made immediately. All other options of travel had failed and if I was to meet my target of reaching Leh by September 1, to be in time for the Ladakh Festival’s opening cultural pageant, I needed to be on the bus right away, notwithstanding the long miles of a three-day, two-night journey and my being prone to motion sickness.
By 4 pm I was seated in a packed carrier, its overhead racks stuffed with luggage waiting to fall at the slightest jerk. All passengers aboard were proceeding ‘home’ or ‘on work’, as I discovered 17 hours later at Manali, having slept through Chandigarh, Mandi, Kullu. The bus emptied out here and when we took off after a short halt at Manali bazaar, I was one of the two women on board, the other being an elderly Ladakhi. My co-passenger now was a soldier, who enquired whether I was a duty-bound government official or school teacher. When I replied in the negative he said, “So, what are you doing on the bus?” My being a curious wayfarer bemused him. “Who in this age of cheap air tickets travels by bus to Leh,” he asked. “Only foreigners do. And, of course, helpless soldiers like us who don’t manage a warrant air-ticket.”

The journey up till Manali had been along the sprightly River Beas, on a relatively smooth highway racing past verdant hills. It was all set to change as we hit the onward trail. Short of Marhi, the popular breakfast halt before Rohtang Pass (12, 723 ft), kiosks advertising fur coats on hire had begun lining the road and a few hapless tourists, unaware that the Pass in end-August is a sunny meadow of green and not a carpet of snow, were seen haggling rates! “Anything for a fast buck,” grinned the soldier, a veteran of this route, who turned out to be a delightfully well-informed guide.
Beyond Rohtang it was a descent into the singular landscape of Lahaul district. Mountains that had appeared in soft shades were now handsomely rugged. Each seemed sculpted by the Master. Each spoke the story of creation that millions have been witness to. Within me, they evoked awe and anxiety almost in the same gasp as the bus rolled past, dwarfed by their might. The River Chandra often meandered into the canvas, sometimes as a gushing unruly brown and on occasions like an elegant silver ribbon. Its boisterous form had managed to chew the tarmac in many sections between Gramphoo and Sissu and the tyres would daringly cross such impromptu water beds. I had taken an air-pillow along which proved to be my sole luxury equipment that I would prop as a head-rest or use as a seat-cushion. Sometimes it was effectively employed as an ear muff to block the entertainment our driver insisted on providing, by playing non-stop hits of craggy Himachali music. So mandatory is such score in subcontinent buses, I’m surprised it still hasn’t been recognised as an honourable genre of music.
The moods of the mountains continued to inspire as the bus trundled past Tandi—famous with overland voyagers as the last place to tank up before Leh—and few two-shop hamlets before reaching the only major town en route, Keylong, the district headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, famous for the Khardong Monastery. The sun was fast dipping and I needed to look for night accommodation. My single-woman status had help pouring in from all ends, and genuinely so, unlike the touts of Bombay or Delhi. The nice-looking tourism hotel was 500 meters away but my weary mind preferred something closer. I opted for a homestay a stone-throw away and hit the sack almost immediately.
At 3.30 am I was back in the bus as were some new passengers, among them a bunch of European backpackers. Sleep-deprived, I lost no time in escaping to slumberland. A monstrous bump awoke me and how providential that proved to be! Dawn’s inky blue shades were gingerly lighting up the sky even as we drove past enormous ranges of barren rock mountains in the valley of the beautiful River Bhaga, its waters reflecting silver and bronze. It was a stunning moonscape and here onwards it grew more awesome. The steady speed of the bus ensured the camera produced creditable images but to be true a lensperson has to do nothing, each frame is so perfect.
By forenoon we had summited the rocky Baralachala (16,049 ft), the second highest Pass we would cross. Soon after we hit the Sarchu plains (a favourite camping site), where ends Himachal and begins Jammu & Kashmir territory. All vehicles report at its checkpost, which allowed me to stretch my legs in starkly beautiful surroundings. The rocky face prior to Baralachala had given way to dramatically barren mud mountains. The whispers of the wind, by way of erosion, had made the mountains a playfield for creativity and carved on its face the most spectacular expressions ranging from castles to crowned monarchs.

The short break at Sarchu, though, stretched to an agonising few hours as the bridge ahead had collapsed, which meant we crossed Nakki la (16, 765 ft) and Lachung la (16, 600 ft) in the afternoon and arrived at Pang, the lunch halt, close to the evening. The menu was typical to the hills and included the ubiquitous Maggi noodles, parantha, omelette and soup, all of which manage to taste quite excellent in such surroundings. For the roadies bedding priced between Rs 80-Rs 120 was available at all tented ‘restaurant-cum-hotels’.
Up next was the fascinating Morey Plains, a 40-km flat strip, the land of the nomadic Changpa tribe. What captivated my imagination here was the way cottony white clouds speckled across the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky formed shadows over austere brown hills. The contrasting colours coalesced pleasingly and the swift movement of the clouds added fluent grace to the drama unfolding in this cold desert theatre.
The scheduled time of arrival in Leh was 5 pm and at that hour we were more than 100 km away traversing the highest pass en route, Tanglang la (17,582 ft) that fluttered with prayer flags. Its ascent had been gentle but by this time my mind had grown restless. The journey seemed never-ending and the other factor was I hadn’t booked accommodation in Leh, having hoped to walk around the pocket-size town and hunt for a suitable place.
Just before the sky wore its night cloak we reached Rumtse, where the first signs of civilization appeared after about 350 km. By 10 pm we finally reached Leh bus station. It was quiet and dark, but thankfully my cell-phone came alive. I rung up a friend’s decade-old contact, who materialised within minutes and in true tradition of Ladakhi hospitality escorted me to a cosy guest house.

It’s said 24 hours acclimatisation is a must before venturing out in Leh. I didn’t have a chance and early next morning I was on the streets capturing images of the Ladakh Festival. The road journey had naturally acclimatised me. And its magic still overwhelms.

Bus journey coordinates and suggestions:

Delhi-Leh bus (Himachal tourism)
Departure: daily (till Sept 15) from ISBT, Counter 7
Time: 3.45 pm
Fare: Rs 482 Delhi-Keylong; plus Rs 460 Keylong-Leh (The latter tkt is purchased in Keylong...the fares have gone up 15 pc since I travelled). Total: Rs 942

Tele contacts:
ISBT Delhi: 011- 23868694
ISBT Chandigarh (Himachal counter): 0172-2668943
Manali bus stand: 01902-252323
Keylong bus station: 01900-222245

Some options for bus travel are:
1. Take the morning train from Delhi to Chandigarh (Shatabadi Express), do a city tour and catch the Leh bus that departs at 9.40 pm.
2. Else, take the Delhi bus up to Manali, and stop over for two days or a day. Then take the bus till Keylong. Break journey as there is enough to occupy you around here for a day or more, and it's worth it to explore if you have come up all this way.
3. Take the morning bus from Keylong to Leh which will be around 15 hrs journey.

Published in The New Indian Express, September 2009


Anonymous said...

What a journey! Inspired me to go. beautiful photos.

Atul Chaudhari said...

Too good!

bs said...

Thanks Atul.

Anonymous said...

Incredible! What a fantastic report. I felt I travelled with the writer. Great work.