Ladakh day 3: On the high passes

2nd July 2011

We had a long day ahead. Everyone had woken up early and by 4AM we were all ready for the journey. The darkness had enveloped the town as bus departed from Keylong. I tried to sleep but excitement about Ladakh kept me awake!! I just peeped outside and we were going along Bhaga River. About 45 minutes of journey brought us to Jispa which is one of the main halting places on Manali-Leh highway. After Jispa was Darcha, a small settlement next to Bhaga River. The bus stopped for sometime here as foreigners required registering themselves at the check post.

Efforts are on to build a road from Darcha to Padum in Zanskar valley which directly connects to Leh near Nimmo. Along with Rohtang tunnel, this new construction would make Manali to Leh an all weather road. It would also put an end to the isolation of remote Zanskar valley.

After crossing Bhaga River at Darcha, it was a steep ascent to small settlement of Patseo. A little later at 6AM we were stopped at an army camp. The ascent to the first pass of the day Baralacha La was to start from here. After Rohtang, it is the next biggest hurdle on this journey. Army people would not let us proceed further till they get information about the status of the pass. Several Lorries had parked on the side all waiting for Army clearance.

The first rays of the sun had fallen on the majestic hills providing us an opportunity to put use our minimal photographic skills!! The clear weather was a promising sign of the day ahead. We were already in rain show region where monsoon clouds are stopped by mighty Himalayan Mountains. The Army did not make us wait for long and shortly later we were climbing towards Baralacha La. On the way, we passed through a small settlement with a strange name called Zingzing Bar. Near to the settlement was a small lake called Suraj Tal.

The road to Baralacha La was in a very good condition. With absolutely no traffic, the summit of the pass was reached without any incident. There was snow everywhere in Baralacha La. This was one of the best “pass” of the trip. We spent quite some time on top of the pass.

The next settlement after Baralacha La was KillingSarai and we stopped there for a tea break. The name of the place was strange and the reason was not known. After KillingSarai, the road mostly goes on the plains. We were nearing Sarchu which is a major resting point on this road. The place consists of many tents all along the road. Since it is at the middle of Manali-Leh road, many people prefer to stay here. But it is at an altitude of 14,000 ft which can cause AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Jispa or Keylong would be better for acclimatization as they are at relatively lower altitudes. But Sarchu is a beautiful place!!

After Sarchu, we say good bye to Himachal Pradesh and enter Jammu and Kashmir. By now, the mountains are all brown in color devoid of any vegetation. We travel for about 20km along a stream and then the sudden climb of Gata loop starts. It is a series of 21 switchbacks that climbs about 1500 ft. As we climb higher, the plains that we left starts to reappear. Somewhere in the middle of these switchbacks was a “ghost point” where our bus slows down to allow conductor to keep a water bottle there!! It seems the ghost would consume all these water!!

A military convey passed which slowed our journey a lot. It took almost an hour to cover the Gata loops. There were also several shortcuts that bypass some switchbacks but need a 4X4 vehicle to drive on those roads. There was again a sudden change in scenery after climbing Gata loops. It was extremely barren and also monotonous. End of the Gata loops brought us to the top of Nakeela which is at an altitude of 15,547ft.

A short descent follows after Nakeela and then starts the climb to Lalchung La. As mentioned earlier, the monotonous barren land caused me boredom and I dozed off for a while. Upon waking up, I found that we were nearing the summit of Lalchung La (Altitude: 16,616 ft).

After Lalchung La, the road leads into a narrow valley with a small stream (Kangla Jal) flowing. The road was bad and weather was extremely hot. Thanks to light breakfast, I was feeling hungry. The next stop was at Pang which looked like eternity. I was sitting on the left side of the bus and the stream was flowing on the right side thus limiting any photography. All these made me restless and I desperately wanted to reach Pang. The ordeal ended at 1:30PM when we reached Pang.

Pang is also one of the halting places for people on this road. Being at an altitude of 15,200ft, it is not a safe place for acclimatization. It is best suited only for people planning to cover Manali-Leh stretch in 3 days or for people coming from Leh (as they are already acclimatized). But one advantage of Pang over Sarchu is the presence of the Army camp. They have medical facilities to treat AMS. Such facility is not available in Sarchu (As per my knowledge).

At Pang, four more people boarded our bus. The fuel tank of their vehicle was damaged and they could not continue further. The road after Pang climbs steeply to reach the Morey plains. The start of the plains is dramatic and appears from nowhere. The next 40km is a completely flat stretch of road. This is a good break for all drivers and passengers from the winding roads grueling winding roads crossed before.

But I must say that the excitement was short lived. Barring for the first few km, there is absolutely no road on this plain. Each one makes his own road thus creating a dust storm behind it. It was so bad that one point of time even driver could not see anything in front of the bus. At few places the bus struggled to pass through the dusty “roads”.

The dust, heat, the beating sun and high altitude all caused me sickness. Headache and uneasiness in stomach swept over me. My thinking ability was reduced confirming a light variant of AMS. I now desperately wanted to get out of this dusty plain. I looked around in the bus and most people were in the same state.

A few vehicles were also struck unable to come out of dusty sand. Things can be terrible if it rains.

After about an hour, we came out of Morey plain. The ascent to Tanglang La, the highest pass on this route had begun. It was a slow climb to the pass thanks to bad roads. The bus stopped on top of the pass for photography. Most of us were sick and returned to the bus as quickly as possible. The road on the other side of the pass was better but the descent was long. The uneasiness that gripped me from past few hours slowly started to recede with the altitude. Rumtze was the first village after crossing Tanglang La. The journey was now along Indus River. This was one of the stretches that were severally affected by last year’s flood. The road was washed out at several places and BRO was still in the process of rebuilding.

After Upshi, it is completely a flat road till Leh. The road was good resembling a highway. The landscape was greener and we were back in civilization!!

Tanglang La as seen from Rumtze

We reached Leh at 8PM and quickly checked in to a nice guest house on Changspa road. We were tired but equally excited on reaching Ladakh which was a dream for several years!!

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