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Published: June 28th 2010
We are still sitting at 1500m above sea level here in Manali but compared to the areas we just left the air is thick and moist and the sun a little less close. Completing the himalayan circuit through Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is a test of your tailbone. The only roads that switchback through the terrain are barely roads and would never be legal or open in any western country. In the course of our circuit we traversed the 2nd and 3rd highest motorable roads in the world. The highest one is out of the way and expensive to visit and only 300 meters higher than number 2. At the peak of Chang La, 3rd highest, the military that guard and maintain the area give you a free cup of chai and try to get you to buy hats that mark the occasion. The many times as your driver veers towards the edge of a cavernous precipice to avoid oncoming traffic of transport trucks and jeeps gives one a chance to reflect on life and sigh in relief as miraculously you somehow do not alight from the muddy gravel path sitting at 4500m. It is nigh impossible to sleep because of the condition of the road causing you to bang your tired head against your ill-padded head rest. It is more like riding a mechanical bull than a peaceful mountain excursion but it is the ONLY way to overland it through the area.
The last of the circuit is the most harrowing; Leh (ladakh) to Manali. There are 4 major mountain passes over 4000m; one of them being the 2nd highest in the world. At this altitude at this time of year is rather surreal. The road many times is washed out by the big melt of snow and glaciers. this often entails a half meter drop in the road suddenly with rushing waters and loose rocks as the driving surface. When you get across that around the corner the road dissapears and becomes the river. (pictures to prove!) Around the corner from that alpine traffic jam lies another. meters away from the high point of the pass you are driving in between the cut walls of a glacier that stands 7 meters high on one side and 4 meters on the other; the low side leads to a cavernous drop of more than a kilometer into a river. Our little slice of fun was a group of oncoming transport trucks that refuse to back up to let a convoy of 50 or more vehicles carrying folks from leh to manali through. The drivers decided to start chipping away at the glacier with shovels in an attempt to widen the cut. As the lone shoveler was given tips by 30 or so people on how to better dig, snow and ice from the top of the cut glacier began to fall on vehicles and it seemed to many onlookers that the beleaguered truck drivers were going to be the end of us all. There is of course nothing you can tell a crew of truck drivers to change their behavior and when there are 10 languages to choose from, any of which they may or not know, you just have to watch and laugh with your fellow doomed travelers.
As i am writing to you wonderful people it is clear that we are alive. The whole drive with all its calamity is a daily trip for thousands of locals, tourists, and indians. The Manali -Leh road is only open 3 months at most every year and is a major artery for the area. The views were spectacular, our bus mates jovial and fun, and the whole trip was life affirming.
Onto less thrilling news...
The last time we wrote was before our trip to Pangong Lake and the monastery town of Hemis. Pangong sits at 4570 m and is unique as it is a saltwater lake... not ocean salty but undrinkable none the less. The environment poses so many threats to the basic needs of a human that it is staggering to visit these happy, healthy and wealthy mountain tribe villages. To take part in their day is to engage in a way of life unchanged for centuries. (except satalite TV) Our host family were small scale farmers as were all the 11 other families that live in Pangong. As the vast lake is not suitable for crops or potable, all drinking water comes from a natural spring and all crop water come from a stream. There is only one stream so each family shares and receives water once every 11 days. Each family just rediverts the water towards their fields using an ancient and elaborate system of channels that crisscross the hillsides.
The people Ladakh are the only group of humans that could ever be described as living sustainably. The air is so dry that if you do not drink water several times through the night you wake up with a swollen, dry tongue and a cough. The air is so thin that you must move around slower or you will faint from lack of oxygen. The water so scarce that only well chosen, well cultivated areas can grow anything other than little scrubby bushes of sage. The people use everything from the land and return everything possible. Touring their farm and seeing their way of life was one of the more pleasant experiences we have had. not to mention it is the quietest place i have ever been.
One of the group we drove out with was an avid trekker and mountain climber who recently had to abandon a planned trek due to bad weather. He had a topographical map of the area and wanted to hike upto a mountain peak and we went with him. We didn't mount a snowy monster but we were in line with the snow caps once we scrambled our way up over 5600m. The trek was a little scary with loose terrain and 50 degree inclines but once we reached our peak the view was worth it. We could literally see all the way to China. There are always glorious mountain peaks in view around here but once you are standing at their level dozens of peaks turn into hundreds and thousands. The vastness of the landscape is truly impressed upon you and words fail to express its beauty.
It was cold and airless and windy so after 15 minutes or so we started our decent. Not as physically difficult but more of a balance test, sliding down loose rocks and sand while staring down a hillside is good way to wake your senses. The decent took almost an hour and we kept a good pace. When we arrived at our homestay there was a nourishing lunch and loads of tea waiting for us. Glorious, difficult and beautiful; all in all a nice afternoon hike.
Manali is almost more like British Columbia than British Columbia. A stark change from the barren landscape of Ladahk, this is a fruitful, lively forested valley. Apples, pears and apricots are the main crop here and their terraces snake up (smaller) mountainsides and into lush valleys. The village we are in (just outside manali) is a major hindu pilgrimage site with ornate temples and sacred hot springs. There is a wedding in town today so the whole area is lively with music, food, and colour. We are soothing our wounded tailbones and windburned faces in this relaxed spot and will soon hit the hard road... after a nap or two.
The wedding dinner is on soon and we were invited so it is time to feast. the internet is actually functional and affordable here so we look forward to talking more with you all. Someone from toronto who we met here said there was an earthquake in toronto... is that true?? News from Canada filters through slowly over here.
Wishing you all the best,
Brian and Jenna
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