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Published: August 12th 2011
Switching vans in the middle of the desert.
The Leh-Manali road is the only overland route in to Leh from the south and is only open during the summer months thanks to the nasty Himalayan winter. Most sane people do the 20 hour trip over 2 days with a nice stopover in a village along the way. We decided to buy our bus tickets the day before we wanted to leave and found the bus companies were sold out so we had to book into an 11 passenger mini-bus that left at 12:30am that night and did the whole stretch in one go.
We prepared for the trip as best we could with crackers, cookies and plenty of music and met the bus at midnight. There was plenty of leg room and we had the premium spot right behind the driver with a full view of the front. We thought we were going to have a great ride when only 5 people got on at the pick-up location but soon starting picking others up along the way through town until the van was packed to capacity. We finally got through town and settled in for the night. Before falling asleep, I noted that the van was having troubles
We're headed for those hills.
with second gear going up hills and was starting to make a funny sound ...
We reached a checkpoint after about 30 minutes and I woke up to the driver poking around the engine compartment along with another passenger and the police officer manning the checkpoint. They seemed happy with it after awhile (at one point the driver grabbed a load of string from under the seat ?!?) and we were once again underway. After another 30 minutes we were again on the side of the road with another guy taking a look under the hood. This time we spun around and started back towards Leh and I fell asleep again. The next time I woke up, we were parked on the side of the road and the sun was just rising over the desert. Another van had been called and we were waiting to switch rides. It finally arrived and we loaded all our gear back up and headed out on the road for good at 5:30am. At this point we had no idea how long this trek would take. Our second van came with a new driver who must have been a rally car champion in a
previous life because he grabbed the wheel and pushed that van through the desert in record time making up loads of time by the end of the ride.
We started climbing the first big pass early in the morning and reached the peak of the 5359m Taglang La pass at around 10:00am. Despite the ridiculous elevation (this is just about 2/3 of the way up Everest), there were people living at the peak with a little Buddhist temple along the side of the road. I was happy the car didn't break down up there. From there we wound our way back down into a valley that seemed to take ages to travel thanks to the perpetually under repair sand roads that often sent you off to find your own path through the surrounding desert. One of our fellow passengers was a teacher from the UK who had actually biked the reverse route from Manali and was returning by van. He must have been smiling to himself at the fact that he was on motorised wheels for this stretch! We finally made it through the valley and reached a village called Pang where we stopped for breakfast and a passport
This is where the road becomes a muddy mess coming down the Rhotang La
checkpoint. There are a number of spots where they check passports along the way due to the close proximity with the Tibetan border.
After Pang, we climbed another pass through striking scenery alongside a river. There was a lot of striated rock and impossibly steep cliffs with the road carved into the bluff. Much of the late morning and early afternoon saw us travelling endless switchbacks through scenes like this. You literally could not take a bad photo of this landscape.
After another stop for lunch we continued on our way. Part of the reason we made up so much time was because our driver was nuts and limited us to two 20 minute food breaks plus the required stops for passport checks. We started the final climb up the Rhotang La at around 5:00pm. At this point, the landscape looks a lot like the Rocky Mountains with trees at the lower elevations. It was really interesting to watch the landscape change slowly from barren desert in the far north to mixed shrub and now high elevation forests. The road up the pass was uneventful but as soon as you cross the top you leave the rain shadow
This is our 'highway'
and the roads instantly become nearly impassible with deep layers of mud. Luckily it hadn't rained in a little while and we were able to slog through and get down the hill and into the town of Manali by about 8:30pm.
It was a bone-rattling journey that saw us covered in bruises by the end of it but was totally worth it. It was easily the most interesting road trip we've ever done and in the end we crossed 4 passes over 4900m in elevation. We found a great guesthouse in Old Manali thanks to a recommendation from our Israeli friends in the van and are going to lay low for a few days before continuing on south.
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