Sunday, 26 August 2012

Driving through the hills, Leh to Amritsar

Leh to Manali

Leaving Leh behind was never going to be easy for two reasons. It was a hassle free tourist orientated town, a luxury, and also the fact that it is way up in the hills. This alone made leaving a somewhat arduous task. No motorway to hop on to and travel south, still in the hills so the only way was slow and painful again.

The main route out of Leh when heading south is to head to Manali. It is possible to break the trip up and do it over a couple days if you like but this is using public buses and on these mountain roads and passes it's not an altogether safe option, especially with the area prone to landslides during the rains; one happened barely one week ago.

The other options available are either jeep or minibus for another 17 hour ride through the hills. Decided on a minibus this time, the jeep coming to Leh was somewhat bumpy so the minibus can't be any worse. Plus there are retractable seats, travelling in style this time.

2am start to proceedings this time, they would rather start in the dead of night than finish up there which suits me fine. The prospect of potentially getting some sleep while I was at it was also refreshing considering I had been up all day walking and rafting before having to wait until the departure time. Sadly, this was not to be the case.

The driver just motored through all the little villages on his way down through the valley and south, stopping abruptly to pick up stragglers as the minibus was not full from the start. The only relief from all the stop-starting was the seat, it just rocked along with the vehicle as it rocketed through the night.

Come day break all signs of life had been left behind with only the odd nomadic family camped out in the arid wasteland. Roads were not a thing out here, it was just follow the track in the sand which best suited your vehicle. There were tracks erverywhere and when we were really lucky, there was a tiny stretch of tarmac, the only relief from the flying out of seats everyone on board was now experiencing, regardless of the seat's magic.

After a while it was only a matter of time before the minibus decided to generate a problem of it's own, there's no way a vehicle can take that much of a battering without getting upset about it. Needless to say, just as the sun was slowly rising to welcome a beatuiful new day, the engine blew and smoke filled the interior of the minibus.

Once pulled over, the other two minbuses we were leading ground to a halt too and came to help out, good job these boys drive as a convoy or we'd have been in a real pickle. As it the norm, other cars and vans pulled over so their respective owners could bestow their wisdom on us; basically stare at what was happening and bark some random instruction that clearly had no bearing on the situation. As is always the case, they eventually get bored and drive off in their functional vehicle.

Some time later, it seemed only appropriate for one of the tyres to go. Again, being part of a convoy has it's perks as the other vehicles stop to lend assistance. Had we been on out own I can only imagine that we would still be at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

During the course of the drive, four passes with an elevation of around 4900m minimum are passed, the tallest of which is the Tagland La pass at 5359m which claims to be the second highest road pass in the world after Khardung La.

These passes were all very manageable with roads that clearly had had some loving from those who made them. However the last pass, Rohtang Pass, was nothing short of a thrill ride as we ascended a road prone to mud and landslides until we were shrouded in mist and you couldn't actually see out the window, not for want of trying.

The driver had his head out the window for half of it as he battled with a gear box that was clearly shot and roads that were covered with rocks and other drivers intent on passing when there was actually no where to go but down. To say there were a few heart stopping moments would be an understatement.

As night was settling in, we navigated the Rohtang pass and slowly wound our way down the mountainside through to the quite hillside town of Manali. A popular place for many tourists who want to do some trekking but don't want to go through the hassle of actually getting to the Ladakhi region of Leh, and after that journey of 17 hours holding my breath, who can blame them.

Views of the ever changing landscape at altitude

One of the four passes of high altitude

Buddhist flags by the roadside

How did that rock get under there?

Ascending the Rohtang pass

Getting higher

Don't look down

Manali to Amritsar

After passing out from the sheer exhaustion of the minibus ride down, a 15 hour bus ride to Amristar awaited. It's not even that far again, just a a few hundred kilometers, but separated by mountains, rugged terrain and roads that have no idea of what basic maintenence could posiibly be. Needless to say, it was another long old ride that would last all through the night with a predicted arrival time of 5am.

The going was quick enough to begin with, even with the pot holes the driver just flew along the road running parallel to a river, stopping along the way to pick up more custom and occasionally stopping in local towns where he was somehow able to naviagte the smallest alleys and side roads in order to gain access to the bus stations.

The hills were far less precarious than the previous couple rides, nonetheless the roads were still incredibly windy and took forever to go around. It didn't take long to realise that the bus went one hour in one direction with the river flowing on the left side before we came upon a small bridge and went an hour back the other way, basically after 2 hours we could see the town from where we started across the river.

Of course, no road route would be complete without the customary tyre blow out and in the dead of night when the bus pulled in for an unintented pit stop the conclusion was inevitable. One man smacking the tyre until it eventually came off with some gentle persuasuion from someone who actually helped pull it off while 23, yes 23, men stood watching with the most ridiculous air of importance. Someone really needs to teach the guys who drive these vehicles how to change a tyre.

Since the first puncture back on the way to Leh, I have taken a back seat considering when I did try to help out they couldn't understand that I might actually have a clue as to what to do. Silly tourist, don't you know smacking the tyre as hard as you can is the way forward.

Once the dust settled and we were back in motion, it was relatively plain sailing until our arrival in Amritsar. Afforded no sleep though, don't remember the last time I was on a seat that uncomfortable. Needless to say, once a guesthouse was found, sleep was the order of the day.

Following the river

Regular road

Lush countryside
Dark but you get the picture

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