Landslides and Long Rides

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July 12th 2010
Published: July 12th 2010
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One of my favorite books as a young child was How I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew by Dr. Seuss. I would strongly recommend this book for anyone planning to travel overland across the Indian Subcontinent, as it gives a better idea of what to expect from overland travel than any guidebook.

I left Delhi almost ten days ago to begin heading toward the high altitude region of Ladakh in the far North of India. I arrived in the mountain town of Manali after spending nearly twenty hours on a decrepit tourist bus sitting under a metal curtain holder that would fall on my head every time the bus hit a pot hole. For most of the trip the man sitting next to me slept with his head on my shoulder, while the man in front of me stayed awake and made it through four packs of cigarettes over the course of the ride. Not wanting to embark on another long ride right away I decided to spend a few days in Manali before heading up to Leh in Ladakh. This turned out to be a huge mistake.

Within hours of arriving in Manali it started to rain. At first I welcomed the cooler rainy climate as it was a great change from the 110 degree heat of Delhi. However three days later the rain still hadn't let up - even for an hour - and after three days of sitting around in cafes I was more than ready to leave for Leh.

The Manali- Leh highway is one of the highest motorable roads in the world, and apparently the world's second most dangerous after a road in the Bolivian Andes. It also has the most dramatic scenery of any road I have yet traveled. The highway is only open 2-3 months out of the year and has to be constantly maintained by the Indian army. Leaving Manali the highway crosses a series of 5 high altitude passes reaching 5328m/17300 ft before descending to Leh. Because Manali is located at only 2000 m, altitude sickness is a serious risk for travelers unacclimated to the elevation. Having just spent 2 months trekking in Nepal though, the altitude was not an issue for me at least.

I left Manali at 2am to begin the 18-20 hour trip to Leh by minibus - really just a van. We only made it about 20 miles out of Manali when we were told the road ahead was blocked by a major landslide. It was now the 4th day of non-stop rain and many of the slopes lining this portion of the highway had become dangerously unstable from the heavy rainfall. The drivers pulled into a roadside food stand where they were determined to wait until the landslide was cleared. As the day wore we all became more and more impatient. It didn't help that it was very cold and rainy so every spent the day sitting in the van waiting. After twelve hours of just sitting it became clear that the road wouldn't be passable so we finally turned around and headed back to Manali. As we were about to pull out tensions broke out between the passengers and driver of one of the other vans. The driver, a Nepali, was convinced that the road would not open so he spent the twelve hours drinking whisky at the rest stop, and was barely able to walk let alone drive a van down one of the world's most difficult roads. My sober driver wasn't much better - irritated about having to turn back he proceeded to take the road back down to Manali at such high speeds that we would get thrown against the side of the van on every turn. Upon arriving back in Manali the driver became very aggressive and demanded extra payment from the passengers for the time he had to wait.

Although the van company wanted to put me on another minibus just a few hours later, I insisted on leaving a day later to allow more time for the landslide to be cleared. So the next night I left at 2am again, this time with a different driver and group of passengers. This time, I was determined, I would make it to Leh. We had heard that the landslide had been cleared and the rain had finally stopped earlier in the day.

A couple hours later we passed the roadside restaurants where I waited and began to continue to snake up the mountain. A couple kilometers later we ground to a stop only to find that the road was once again blocked. An oil tanker was jack-knifed and stuck in the mud completely blocking the road. On closer inspection it turned out that the tanker truck was crossing the landslide area when a major boulder came hurtling down at the truck. The boulder had struck the tanker's underside pushing the vehicle sideways and cutting the steering column in two. Had the boulder struck just slightly higher the results could have been disastrous as the tanker was carrying thousands of liters of highly flammable oil. Still with a broken steering column the truck was unable to maneuver out, so the road was blocked. Behind the truck a series of small boulder that had fallen overnight cluttered the highway blocking the route ahead.

The best point to the whole situation was the sheer beauty of the landscape where we were stuck. We were at about 12000 feet in elevation as the sun began rising over lush green hills framed by barren snow-capped peaks. About four hours later the army arrived on the scene with a heavy duty tow truck. Slowly but surely the soldiers towed the tanker out of the mud and began clearing the rocks off the highway. A couple hours later the road was re-opened and cars started to move.

At this point there was a huge traffic jam of stuck vehicles waiting to get through. The army began letting vehicles heading the other direction, back down toward Manali, through first. Before too many cars made it through, the soldiers directing traffic stopped dead in their tracks to a fierce rumbling sound. Looking up, an enormous chunk of the cliff above was starting to crumble. All of a sudden enormous boulders started to rain down on a stretch of road where a truck had been just seconds earlier. The landslide finally stopped only to reveal a boulder the size of a truck blocking the highway. The boulder was too big to be removed by the equipment the army had available. It was shaping up to be a long day.

A few hours later some new army vehicles pulled up, this time chock full of dynamite. Slowly but surely the team drilled into the boulder, planted the explosives, and blasted the rock away. The highway once again re-opened, but after every few dozen cars the road had to be momentarily closed to clear small debris that continued to rain down the cliff throughout the day. Just shy of sunset, after 15 hours of waiting, we finally pulled through the landslide zone relieved to be past the raining showers of rock. Too late to continue on to Leh that night we stopped at a rest stop where we could get beds for a few hours sleep.

The next day things went more smoothly as we drove past glaciers, raging rivers, and barren passes. The driver knew the road well, and the ride went quickly as everyone chatted and admired the views. I arrived in Leh exhausted, but so glad to have made it. I plan on staying in this region for about the next month or so. The weather and the scenery are excellent, and at this altitude the air is clear and fresh.

Well that's about all for now.

Stay tuned ...


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