Published: May 29th 2008May 28th 2008
The Indian Himalayas are a spectacular network of steep mountains and big valleys that are hemmed in by Pakistan and China on either side. The Indian military runs the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) which maintains a road network along their northern borders, right through the heart of the Himalayas. It is one serious feat of road building to carve these roads out of the colossal scale of these mountains; winding up and down one mountain pass after another. And it makes for one unbelievable array of stunning mountain scenery.
Our first major traverse of these roads consisted of the 300km stretch to the regional capital of Ladakh, Leh. Always up for an adventure, we bucked the trend and monotony of riding buses and decided to hitchhike…And what an adventure it turned out to be. Over the next four days I think we used almost every form of transportation available, from dumptrucks to motorbikes.
The road, having only just opened a week ago was extremely busy with traffic, primarily transport trucks and military convoys re-supplying the region after a long winter of being cut off from ground transport. One look at the transport trucks and we knew that
was the way we wanted to travel - and in style! Every truck in India is the model made by Tata, an Indian manufacturer. But every truck has its own customized paint job and cab theme. We rode most of our time in these trucks, meeting some extremely friendly truckers, eating at local truckstops (a far cry from your idea of one), as well as generating a lot of interest from the other truckers who failed to have two giant whitemen riding in their cab with them. The pace of travel is extremely slow, i.e. 3 days for a 300km journey. The road is mainly one lane the entire time and trucks travel in huge convoys (I counted over 100 military trucks in one), meaning that if they meet vehicles coming from the other direction, the entire line-up gets stopped until the oncoming vehicles can reverse back far enough to find a spot to pass. And the roads just wind and wind and wind. On one particular mountain pass, the road ascends 3000’ up the sheer rock massive with 50+ degree slopes. We agreed it was by far the craziest road we have ever traveled on, and, quite possibly in
the world. Fortu La - drive it for yourself and let me know!
The Indian military maintains a presence of over 700,000 troops stationed on their northern borders. This is such a huge presence that almost every town or valley you pass into has a huge military camp stationed in it. Combine that with the checkstops every hour or so, the random guards stationed everywhere (i.e. in the middle of a grazing pasture with no people in sight) and the morning scream of jet fighters filling the air, you certainly get the idea that India is dead serious about showing its military might to its encroaching neighbours. For the amount of money that is wasted ‘protecting’ its borders, the roads are in disarray (i.e. not paved, one lane), the infrastructure of towns and cities is poor, and the presence of good education really doesn’t exist, evidenced by many families sending their children south for grades 10 and onward (if lucky). But enough of that now, you could seriously go on for pages about the disparity in this country.
When we finally made it into Leh, it was a welcome relief after a serious lack of decent food on
our journey. Leh is a tourist town catering to foreign hikers so we were treated to our first Western fare (read: yak cheese PIZZA) in three weeks! Ladakh is also known as little Tibet. The culture is predominantly Tibetan with an extremely strong Buddhist influence. Gompas (Buddhist monasterys) and Stumpas (statue like structures) line roadways and dot rocky cliffsides everywhere in the valleys. Most of these Gompas are over 500 years old and some house upwards of 100 monks. We haven’t quite mastered the theology of Buddhism (far from it) but were quite impressed by the reserve and peacefulness with which the monks seem to live by. Extremely interesting religion.
Ladakh has a very unique landscape characterized by steep mountains rising up from large valleys carved out by rivers. This area is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and receives very little precipitation. As a result it is desert like, desolate and void of vegetation as soon as you leave human settlements. It sometimes felt like we were looking at a Martian landscape. The scale of the mountains here feel similar to that of North America - until you take a step back and remember that the valley
bottoms are at around 10,000 feet, meaning that you are staring up at 20,000 foot peaks. It looks quite amazing to see the transition of snowy peaks give way to muti-coloured hues of browns and oranges on all the mountains.
Some highlights during our time here were driving up and over the worlds highest motorable road at 18,360’ of Khardung La into the Nubra Valley. From there we drove as far north as the Indian military would allow and frolicked in sandunes with camels, remnants of the silk road while staring at the mighty Karakoram Range that extends into Pakistan (and houses K2 - 2nd largest mountain). Another highlight was renting British Royal Enfield motorcycles and exploring the numerous Gompas in the Indus Valley. The morotorcycles were a blast, as they are still built to 1960’s specifications, have a very throaty exhaust note and sport a look that just doesn’t fit in with the typical scooter and small cc Honda bikes that are the norm in India. One other good story to note is hiking 1000’ feet up a rocky valley one day to a remote monastery and sharing tea, stories, philosophy as well as a first taste of
a buddha statue
at the thicksay monastery
watermelon for the year with some extremely friendly monks living there. It goes to show, if you get off the beaten path (i.e. Lonely Planet or other book), you often get rewarded with experiences that never cease to amaze…
We found out the road south to Manali was ‘unofficially’ open so we decided to finish our last leg of the inner Himalayas with a jeep journey down to the southern flanks. As the road isn’t officially open (and offering bus service) until early July, once again we had quite an adventure getting to our destination. Barren and remote, the beauty of the landscape unfolded before us as we twisted from valley to valley. 4wd was a necessity as we crossed 3 mountain passes over 16,500’, detoured around washed out bridges, gigantic potholes and navigated around hundreds of gaping Indian tourists, sheeps, goats and Yaks at the final mountain pass before descending into the lush Kullu Valley on the Monsoon side of the Himalayas. After 19 hours of driving to cover 480km, the rising humidity and sweet smell of vegetation was a welcome relief! The Indian Himalayas are a beautiful thing, but getting around them is like nothing you have
There are more photos below