THE GREAT ESCAPE
Akshai Jain tests the road that everyone’s talking about
Photographs by Ahtushi Deshpande
So you find this place beautiful?” asked Tsering Sholden, a Changpa nomad, gesturing vaguely across the vast Moreh plains. Around me lay a low line of snow-dusted mountains. Eddies of dust rose from the plains. Herds of yak grazed in some of the tentative pastures that spread out along the edges. “It’s cold, the wind never ceases, there’s little water, and there are no markets here,” he shrugged. For a moment I thought he was joking. But I was halfway to Leh and for the moment, very happy to have left behind the markets and the holiday bustle of Manali.
For 473 long kilometres, the Manali-Leh road clings, slips, slides, punches and wriggles its way through some of the most spectacular terrain in the world. Along the way it crosses four high passes, fords streams and rivers and clings precariously to tumbling mountain surfaces. It follows in the tracks of an ancient caravan route that went from the plains of Punjab to the highlands of Ladakh, and then onto Yarkand—for many centuries the largest trading centre in Central Asia. But this was never the favoured route—water was scarce, there was virtually no habitation, the passes were treacherous, and there was little fodder available for the mules. The route from Srinagar to Leh was in comparison much easier, open for longer, and had caravan sarais along its length.
The route is still treacherous. For the most part the road is little more than a widened caravan track. Every year landslides bury the road, and every year the military imperative of having an alternative to the Srinagar-Leh highway requires that it be laboriously resurrected. The coming of the road has wrought subtle changes. The caravans have now been replaced by tankers carrying army fuel and trucks laden with supplies for Leh’s growing population. In place of the bleached bones of pack animals that once littered the route, there are now the shells of these vehicles entombed in snow. Instead of horses, the Changpas now have cars parked outside their sooty encampments. For three and a half months of the year, from June to mid-September, there’s lots of coming and going, and small camps spring up at unlikely places. And a journey which once took a week (or more) and was an ordeal, can now be done in two days, and is often called a holiday.
Getting away from the noise of Manali wasn’t that easy, though—all of North India seemed intent on frolicking in the snows of the Rohtang Pass. Our Ford Endeavour Thunder Plus idled restlessly behind a kilometre-long pile up of cars at Gulaba, a particularly mud-slide prone spot on the climb to Rohtang. Above us the road snaked its way between sheer walls of rock that rose on either side, leading up to the mighty Rohtang Pass. Himalayan Griffons floated effortlessly between the cliffs, weaving in and out of the low clouds.
The snowball-throwing crowds, shrieking couples on snow scooters and rickety wooden sledges disappeared behind a bend as we made our way beyond Rohtang. Suddenly there was absolute silence. Just the sound of the wind rushing down the mountain, the gentle tip tap of melting snow, and the scrunch of car tyres on the road. Clefts in 15-ft-high walls of snow revealed a battered road.
The descent into Lahaul was steep and dusty, down scree- and boulder-strewn mountains. As the road levelled out, the settlement of Gramphoo appeared on a plateau suspended above the raging Chandra river. The green shades of Manali were replaced by shades of brown and rust, interspersed occasionally by a few willow trees. A rugged line of snow peaks lingered in the backdrop. Soon villages started appearing along the road—small affairs of stone and mud houses surrounded by trees, with a mandatory chai shop where men could be seen loitering. The first shoots of potato and peas were appearing on small fields slapped onto mountainsides. Women in salwaar kameez, with heavy jackets on top, walked along the road carrying bundles of firewood. A little before Tandi we took a road leading up to the village of Tupchilling. It was dark by the time we arrived at a camp of small bamboo houses sprawled on a field adjacent to the new gompa of the village.
A cold breeze blew down the mountains around us, carrying with it the deep guttural sound of Buddhist chanting. I followed the chant into the monastery. On the second floor, a lama was swaying back and forth chanting a frenetic prayer. His voice wove through the beats of the nha (Tibetan drum), rising to a crescendo, to end in the clash of the rolmu (cymbals). And then after a moment of silence the chanting would start again.