As the last days in my Delhi stay of three years were approaching, the nagging thought of visiting Leh and Ladakh resurfaced with a renewed vigor. I felt a trip to my dream destination would be virtually impossible once I relocated to South India, which led to me a final frantic search of the internet for any travel plans.

Thanks to Facebook, I came across a post from Kanishk which said that they were a team of travel enthusiasts planning a trip to Ladakh on their own vehicle and that they were looking for another one to come along with them to share the expenses. I immediately agreed to the trip and followed it with a little jump of hurrah. Itineraries shared, shopping and bragging with friends done, I was well and truly ready for it.

It was on 8th of July 2010 that we finally headed towards Leh from Noida in the Toyota Innova driven by Ajay with two others already in it. Kanishk introduced the others as Ajay, Navindu and Harish. We started at around 12:30 AM and the plan was to reach Manali by morning and head towards Leh after getting some rest at Manali. As I settled myself comfortably in the seat next to the driver, Ajay turned in the key into the ignition and we are away. I lowered the window to let the familiar Delhi breeze hit my face as I slumbered resting my back on to the seat.

The journey took longer than expected and we reached Manali by 3:30. Manali was crowded with foreigners who took a liking to my camera and started to flirt with it while I was having a ball clicking the photographs. But soon, the night descended and we started back to our rooms.

We woke up at 5 AM on July 10th and started towards the Rohtang Pass in our vehicle. I stepped out and looked up to find the most amazing sight of dark clouds reaching slowly to catch the greener tip of the mountain. They were not racing towards it as such, but I could see that all of them were travelling to the same tip.
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I could have stayed at the exact spot for another day if not for the honking and hollering of Ajay and others. I heaved a sigh and boarded the vehicle. Kanishk played the guide and informed us that it was 51 km drive to the Rohtang and it was at an altitude of 13400 ft.

The numbers played in my mind and I was exhilarated to be finally starting the trip but then we were faced with our first hurdle. We had a bad traffic jam 20km away from the Rohtang. No one seemed to move forward or backward and when we asked a person on the road, he told us that it has been the case for the past two days due to the landslides which blocked the road ahead. The police was not letting anyone through and were warning all of us to return as it would be dangerous to go any further. They used their lattis on a couple of trouble mongers which discouraged us from any attempts to dodge them. I felt as if the dark clouds I saw earlier settled all over our faces.

A truck carrying cargo was badly hit by a landslide which has caused the traffic over there to come to a halt. We were stopped again from going ahead saying that it was dangerous to even be at that place. It was decided that the truck should be blasted with dynamites to make way for others. No one moved or retreated for an hour during the blasts. People cheered as the road cleared up and our journey resumed, but soon we were in for a setback again as we came across another one of those traffic jams. This one was worse than anything we faced with about 1000 4-wheelers and 500 2-wheelers standing still gaping at us. We asked one of them who said that they were all stranded there for the last two days for the road to be opened. We felt the anxiety and enthusiasm drain out of our faces.

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The military convoy came again to blast away the landslide which was obstructing the passage but with all their efforts, they could achieve only a precious little. It was 8 PM into the evening when they gave up for the day. The air dampened by that time and it was eating into our bones ferociously while the hunger pangs returned with a vengeance. But we did not want to go back and kept hoping that something eventually would turn up and we could proceed. The feeling was shared by almost everyone on the road. It felt good to see none of the others gave up.

It was at 11 PM when Navindu and Ajay started complaining about not being able to breathe in properly. Ajay also said that his stomach was aching and soon the discomfort rubbed off on the others. I started to tremble a bit in cold and in fear as I cast my eyes towards a wrought iron board which claimed the altitude to be 13000 ft. So, the dreadful has happened and we did a U-turn to go and have some rest for the day. That was our first setback.

Wadi, a small village between the Rohtang Pass and Manali, was where we decided to spend the night. We stopped at a dhaba to have our dinner. Ajay and Navindu were hungry and eager to hog on to the rotis and as I was about to help myself to my first morsel, I heard the two guys start throwing up. We completed our dinner somehow but Ajay suggested that we do not drive anymore for the day. He said that it would be foolish to go on in this climate on the Ghat road.

But Ajay started the Innova slowly and he was driving it with utmost caution. The effort in his face was visible and we were watching him closely without making any noise, too nervous to say anything. We told him to use only the clutch and the brake and not to step on the accelerator. The headlights of the vehicle were not of much help in the fog and we were treading on uncertainly. He was about to stumble into a pit when Harish screamed and alerted him. Ajay stopped the car with a sudden brake and all of us flung from our seats momentarily with the jerk. I shuddered to think what might have happened had we fallen into the pit. Ajay wanted to take a U-turn and was reversing the vehicle. He was unable to find one when I shrieked out loud knowing that we came to the edge of the hill. Ajay stopped the vehicle for a while and all of us sat still for God only knows how long. Finally, we decided to head back to Manali and stay at the same hotel where we stayed the previous night. So, back to square A again.

We resolved to start earlier the next day at 4:30 AM to reach the Rohtang Pass and be the first to get across the other side. We started early in the morning the next day at around 5 AM and reached the Rohtang Pass again to be engulfed in a huge sense of déjà vu of the previous day. None of the people whom we saw the previous day moved an inch and everyone was waiting for the road to be cleared. It almost felt like a diaspora. There were some attempts at blasting the hills and every time we heard one we cheered, applauded and danced but we never progressed an inch.

We bought 3 maps and Navindu told us that we will take the alternative route to Leh via Srinagar. Having heard lot of unpleasant stories about Srinagar, I was reluctant and Ajay told he could not drive for so long. It was roughly 600KM drive on a Ghat road and we only had maps to guide us. But somehow the thoughts of visiting Leh pegged us on and so the long journey to Srinagar has started.

After two days of torpor suffered at the Pass, the pleasure of moving ahead was palpable in our faces, though the drive itself was not entirely a pleasant experience. We took a break every 4 hours. At about 3 PM, when we were slowly dozing off, the vehicle screeched to a halt all of a sudden. I saw Navindu hitting Ajay on his head with a stream of abuse flowing out of his mouth. He told me that Ajay was driving with his eyes only half open and we all could have hit a tree while making a dangerous turn at a hairpin bend. We decided to give him a break for some time and we walked around the place for a while to get rid of niggles in our joints. We looked at the road that lay ahead and it felt very dangerous to be driving at that place.

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Ajay woke up by the time we went back to our vehicle and he assumed command of it again to our relief. The evening progressively grew colder and it became difficult for us to bear it. I wanted to halt for the night but the plan was to cross the Jawahar Tunnel by the night, so we went on. We came across many military check posts on our way and it took a lot of chicanery from us to get past each one. At every post we heard the same thing from the guards that “Though I’m letting you on, I’m sure you won’t get past the next check post”. But there are only so many check posts and guards we can deceive in a day and we were stuck up again at a check post when we were way behind our schedule to reach the Jawahar tunnel.

The next day was an early start again and we reached the Jawahar tunnel after about 3 hours of drive. The long, dark tunnel was a feast on our eyes and we were all excited to pass through it but we found a long queue staring at us. The military officials were checking everyone thoroughly before letting them in and I thought this could take ages. Ajay got out of the car and Kanishk volunteered to pull over a sideway. As all of us got down but Kanishk drove ahead quickly and soon he was heading towards the tunnel gesturing frantically towards us to join him. We ran as fast as we could and jumped into the Innova. There were cheers and hi-fis all around but Harish was afraid that the Military personnel might catch us. Soon, we heard two loud sirens blazing toward us and we were all shit scared. Kanishk asked if he should stop but we felt we could not risk it at that point of time. We were racing ahead and praying that they don’t catch us. The chase went on for about five minutes and by then we realized they were not really chasing us. The cars went past us without even a glance at us and we heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We passed the Jawahar tunnel quickly without much ado and ventured into Srinagar. The city seemed to be totally drenched in Military greens and wherever our eye went it invariably saw a jawan patrolling. None of us spoke anything to each other and we all felt like fugitives even though we have hardly done anything. The place reeked of terror and soon it caught all of us. We have wound ourselves in our woolen mufflers and were only glancing at the road, not even stopping to have a recess. We came across empty roads with soldiers scattered in a makeshift tent every 300 feet. Every tent has only one soldier in it with a gun pointing skywards. None of them seemed to be least bit reluctant using them. I ideally wondered how they pass their time the whole day standing and guarding with nothing else to do. We came across Kargil which seemed surreal and gave us a few jitters, but we could not spend much time there.

In the presence of the military personnel all the energy and voice seemed to be sucked out of us as we travelled for the entire day from Srinagar to Leh in looming silence. Apart from that, the journey thankfully did not stop and we reached Leh at around 6 PM in the evening. We got out of the car and danced on the roads like kids. I called my sister to tell her where I was actually. She was shocked and surprised. After travelling on Ghat roads for about 3 days the vast extent of traffic-free straight tarred road gave Ajay great joy as we entered Leh. He drove at 140 KMPH on that road and boy, was it exciting.


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I always heard stories and saw pictures of Leh on the internet but they were nothing compared to the actual azure waters we saw. Those were the sights to behold and I wished I could come to Leh every year at least once.
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Even in the present of the most breathtaking locales we could not spend as much time as we wanted as the cold became unbearable and we started back to the guesthouse and visited Pangong the next day.  Navindu wanted to stay the next day to visit the Khardungla Pass but I was totally spent and sapped out of the last bit of energy. I wanted to go back and promised them we would visit Leh again. Better sense prevailed and all of them agreed to head back.

The return journey was mostly uneventful compared to the onward with only a flat tire posing any sort of problems, but when you have gone through what we have gone through, a flat tire does not seem like much. 





[This is my entry for 'The CarConnect Experience' contest, hosted by IndiBlogger in association with CarConnect