Chapter 10 of 22
Next morning after the routine morning chores and a satisfaction of having gained some experience from the previous night’s drive, we headed back to Tandi to get the fuel tank topped up. The 55L tank of the Innova simply didn’t necessitate filling up the fuel-canister we were carrying. Taking the same road up to Keylong (3350m), we rushed to reach Jispa (3260m) before it was too late for the breakfast. The metalled road past Keylong is slashed out of a wide gorge high above the Bhaga River on its right bank. Passing through village Gemur (3300m) and some settlements by the river, we soon reached Jispa, recently in news for being among the chosen sites where the government is mulling to set up a hydroelectric power plant. Aware that the next permanent habitation on the Manali-Leh highway was still over 280km away, we wolfed as much food as we could. While settling the bills, the owner of the hotel politely requested me to drop a letter at a tent-accommodation at Sarchu 100km ahead. Devoid of any communication network, sending important communication through traveller-courier is the best alternative.
Confirming our location to my friend Tsewang Dorje in Leh, we set out to begin our share of adventure on the Manali-Leh highway, now a popular safari route. The neatly tarred road snaked to reach Darcha (3330m), house to a series of dhabas and a police check post, where we had to register ourselves and were asked to hold our horses for some time. On its way to Leh, a convoy of army-vehicles, ahead of us, had damaged the iron-bridge over the Jankar stream. Summoned by the policeman, the BRO workers arrived after some time and with the help of bystanders started the patch-up work to replace the dented iron-logs. The road camaraderie mustered enough numbers to enable quick repair of the bridge. In the meantime, I restocked supplies for the day and captured a few birds including Alpine Choughs.
Passing through the point where the popular trek to Zanskar over the Shingo La starts, the road steadily climbs upstream to reach Patseo (3765m). Although still known as Darcha – Padum trek, it has effectively reduced to Palamu – Ichar trek, cutting down a few days of slogging at both ends. The Government of India is in the process of fabricating a motorable road to connect Manali with Kargil. A common sight in the region during the summer months are huge flocks of sheep and goats lead by Gaddi shepherds from their village homes in the Chamba valley in search of the nutritious Niru, a blue-green grass.
An erstwhile trading outpost, Patseo was the meeting place for traders from Zanskar, Lahaul, Kullu and Ladakh who would barter salt, wool from uplands for tea, grains, and spices from lowlands. Located on the slopes of the Baralacha La, Patseo has a couple of parachute-tents selling hot food and limited supplies, a PWD Hut, a small lake with pedal-boat facility, etc.
Patseo onwards the road climbed on the left bank of the Bhaga and a few kilometres ahead past the army encampment was an imaginatively named but a meagre-looking place called Zing Zing Bar (4100m). Zing Zing Bar onwards the ascent continues on a metalled road through a bare as well as rocky landscape. The road was in good condition and the ascent was also gradual still we were moving at a snail’s pace as had just caught up with the tail-end of the army cavalcade.
Ahead after crossing the Bhaga stream, believed to be originating from the turquoise Suraj Taal visible from the road, the highway climbs to reach the crossroads of Ladakh, Lahaul, Zanskar and Spiti. 110m higher than Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, the Baralacha La (4939m) on the Great Himalayan Range commands outstanding views across both sides. A typical landscape encompasses brown rocks topped with white and shiny snow that looks like chocolate brownie in camera-viewfinder.
The noise and fumes-pollution caused by the movement of huge army convoy made it impossible for us to stop and appreciate the views. We now aimed to get ahead of the cavalcade at the soonest. The gradual but rough descent from the high-mountain pass almost got unnoticed because of the magical views embracing marbled red-pink mountains and green glacial lakelets giving rise to the Yama River. We got past the army caravan at Bharatpur (4750m), located 5km after the pass, where the unit briefly halted for a tea-refreshment. The seasonal parachute tent at Bharatpur brews up the usual – chai, maggi noodles, daal/ rajma and rice – the official menu of the Manali-Leh highway.
A little ahead of the tent, a damaged iron-bridge over the torrential Yunam stream made us stop and terrified us briefly. The bridge seemed to have been damaged by overloaded trucks ferrying supplies to Leh for the coming winter season. The vehicles ahead had dismantled the iron sheet as well as the iron-logs. An alternate track leading across the stream confirmed that it was fordable but the now thigh-deep dashing water-flow made it impossible for any vehicle to cross it. We could either wait for the BRO team to arrive or head back. A close inspection of the problem at hand made me believe that with some basic replacement of sheets as well as logs and a careful manoeuvre of the Innova over the 10-12m bridge-length could relocate us to the other side. We did the same with a success which brought us major relief. Om Mane Padme Hum!
After Bharatpur hairpins, the road follows the rowdy river passing through a gorge until it calms down entering into the wide open alluvial Sarchu Plains (4300m). On the way we passed through the Killi army campsite as well as a couple of small lakes after which the popular campgrounds emerged. Ahead the Sarchu plains looked strikingly beautiful: vivid green grass, carvings made out of erosion on the canyon walls, neatly tarmacked road, endless blue sky, low-velocity winds forming a tiny dust squall as well as dhabas and tea-shops. The barren land at the border of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir even had a liquor shop!
Offering the Manali-Leh menu, most of the items are overpriced in the camps as well as the dhabas. With the popularisation of this Safari route, Sarchu has emerged to be a popular overnight stay option among the travellers on the Manali-Leh road. Registering ourselves at a Police Check Post, we proceeded ahead and after negotiating a small stream and crossing a bridge over Chharap Nala that joins Yunam to form the main Tsarap River, briefly stopped for a tea. The next 85 km stretch on the highway is literally without any habitation or tea shops or army encampments.
Ahead the road meandered by the right bank of the river for the next 31km to reach Brandy Nalah (4205m) on a levelled ground just at the base of the ill-famed Gata Loops. The climb to the scruffy Nakee La (4950m) begins from the base of the Gata Loops by the Tsarap, a set of 21 switchbacks spread over 9 km to gain over 420m in altitude. Ascending further through a narrow tarred road in a series of hairpins, the pass is another 10km from the endpoint of the Loops. On the way we came across a few loaded trucks struggling hard to climb as well as a bivouacking site littered with plastics and bottles. Sad indeed!
The road descended on a similar arid terrain over the next four kilometer to reach a popular campsite – Whisky Nalah (4800m). Located by the stream are a few abandoned army nissen huts, where getting an accommodation in case of an emergency is always a possibility. A further 8km gradual ascent on the narrow bumpy road takes you to the Lachulung La (5060m).
Downhill the rutted road skirts through verdant pastures then drops through a narrow gorge marked by a few memorials by a stream. The theatrical landscape encompassed just every component of arid land: noisy stream, rock pools, eroded turrets, spires and flutes against the backdrop of a slightly overcast sky. Ahead, as the river (Lachalung Lungpa )confluences with Toze Lungpa and Sumakhei Lungpa after the widening gorge, the parachute tents of Pang (4625m), located in a vast amphitheater of rock and sand, came into view. As we neared the temporary settlement, the notice board on the river iron-bridge did not surprise us. It read, “The Bridge is not suitable for any further use”. I got down and observed the knee-deep icy-stream taking the now-operational muddy track a little ahead of the bridge. The vehicle needed to be swiftly maneuvered to counter the flow of water and in a particular fashion to avoid large boulders in the stream. We were successful without a single hit underneath the vehicle. Om Mane Padme Hum!
A filthy looking settlement comprising a police check post, few parachute-tents monopolised by villagers from Changspa, a government-operated infirmary, dhabas as well as an army encampment, just like Sarchu, Pang is a popular night-halt option for Manali-Leh travellers. It was still early evening but due to the fast changing weather we did not want to fall into previous night-like situation and so decided to call it a day. Having proved our credentials at the police check post, we checked for an accommodation at the army camp’s wet canteen.
It was a typical lodging providing basic facilities like bedding, blankets, tea, refreshments, Manali-Leh meal as well as open toilet, etc. We preferred tentage over the spacious mud-walled hut just to avoid snores of other occupants at night. Having parked the Innova right in front of the tent’s entrance, I set out for a walk around the area. The cousin occupied himself with a hot-coffee shot and his own usual stuff.
Plastic furniture arranged outside the tents make it a joyful place to laze and sip hot chai or relish the Manali-Leh menu. Garbage is dumped next to the river and the constant flow of travellers, often screamed at by the tent owners to stay with them, keep adding to the junkyard. I was hiding behind a large stone to photograph a few snow pigeons in the fading daylight when it started raining. The weather had changed suddenly and towards the Tanglang La the sky was completely overcast by now. I would say that we were lucky to have taken a right decision to call a halt at Pang otherwise, in such a weather, things may turn messy at the Pass.
Protecting my camera from the downpour, I quickly reached our tent and ordered maggi-noodle-soup along with a cup of hot ginger tea. Expecting a bitter cold night, the cousin had already arranged the beddings; three layers below and four above. Unperturbed by the happenings of the world outside we lied-down and pondered over the previous night’s drive. Thinking of the terrain that lay ahead, the incessant-looking rain seemed to be a blessing in disguise. The tent was an all-weather assembly courtesy the army camp that also supplied limited electricity to our camp. The remaining camps were without any electricity supply. As the sunlight faded and also because of the weather, many more travellers started pouring inside the settlement for an overnight stay. Amidst all this the rain stopped and we got a chance to step outside unworried of the altitude or the lack of oxygen. Not overcast anymore, the silvery starry-skyscape was a soul-filling treat to the body. The various hues of the night sky – comprising golden, silver, pink, orange, blue sheen – appeared straight out of an electronic abstract art page. Far away, the headlights of trucks and taxi-vehicles rattling around the hairpins seemed like watch-tower’s beams draping in the valley.
Loaded with winter wears – for the first and only time – we took a walk around the tents area, infirmary, out-of-order iron-bridge as well as the army site. As an aftereffect of the downpour, the outside temperature was now hovering around 2 – 3 degree. Post dinner we approached the Commanding Officer of the army camp and sought his help in arranging a satellite-operated STD-con with our parents to keep them posted with respect to our coordinates. Having communicated our parents we walked out of the fenced area; chatted briefly with a few of the jawans and came back to our shelter for the night. Our bodily-systems were responding well and did not show any signs of altitude sickness as of now. Packed in multi layers of blankets, I considered it appropriate to ask for some tea as well as a few bottles of water for the night. Everything seemed okay at that moment.
It was around midnight, after a couple of hours of sleep, when I got up to a headache and heard the caterwauling of my trip-partner; I knew we both were hit by Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). I made him drink half a bottle of water and the remainder I consumed myself. It was very cold and the whistling gusts were almost threatening to blow our all-weather-tent away. Sandwiched between multilayers and with the body in a flu-infected state coupled with the breathlessness made it the longest night our lives. The Langza-hike was of no use it seemed!
Asleep and awake at the same time, we counted every passing minute impatiently waiting for the incipient sunrays. In between both of us drank a lot of water that was ice-cold but the yowling of cousin showed no restraint. I patiently asked him if he wanted to see an army doctor at the outpost still he was not willing. With the outside temperature hovering around minus three, four degree, I must have stepped outside the tent, to discharge the bodily fluids, at least four time post-midnight. After a lot of struggle to locate the drug inside the car, finally I got hold of Diamox and administered half-a-tablet each, which showed its effect after an hour or so. The situation was better but we had not fully recovered and kept drinking small volumes of water at regular intervals.
At the crack of dawn, I moved outside to attend nature’s call in the open at freezing point. The Innova was covered with 3-4mm thick layer of soft ice and needed to be treated with some lukewarm water for it to liquefy. The cousin got the owner’s family to do the necessary morning chores for us including providing the lukewarm water, tea, supplies for the day as well as settlement of bills. Up here, the supplies are costlier by up to 20 per cent of the original price. Soon we were on the narrow ascending road, over a few switchbacks, to reach the Morei plains.
Even though, the experience at Pang continues to haunt me often, it’s not going to stop me from again travelling to the same region. Om Mane Padme Hum!
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