Thanks for your overwhelming response to the earlier posts in the series. We have started early from Leh with an ambition to cover the most ardent and longest road trip to Manali through one of the world’s most adventurous roads.
After a few kilometers drive from Leh city, we reached a place called Karu, a road similar to service lane on the right leads to the way to the Hemis Monastery. We turned on this road and after traveling a few kilometers through a narrow steep-up road on the mountainous terrain reached at the monastery, located on top of the hill. A dharma chakra at the parking area welcomed us with high mountain cliffs surrounding the location giving an awesome and spectacular view. Early morning, hence not much crowd, we entered the shrine climbing through few steep steps. An entry ticket to the monastery was something that surprised us which was later realized was for maintenance of the structure and for preserving the ancient treasure.
About Hemis Monastery (compiled from different sources)
Hemis Monastery is revered as the largest monastic institution in Ladakh with more than 200 branches and approximately 1000 monks in the Himalayan region, situated 45 km from Leh in the foothills of Indus at an altitude of 12000 feet. Established in 1630 by Lama Tagstang Raspa and built by Palden Sara under the patronage of King Sengge Namgyal on a site previously sanctified by the construction of a cave hermitage dating from the 12th century. The road to Hemis monastery is a thrilling experience and the surroundings make the journey a memorable one. The Hemis is the wealthiest monastery in India and famous for its rich collection of ancient remnants like the statue of Buddha made of copper, stupas made of gold and silver. Monastery also has sacred Thangkas, murals and various artifacts.
The Tibetan style architecture of the monastery is very colourful and attractive. It is divided into two parts – the assembly hall known as Dukhang and the temple which is called Tshogkhang. The huge courtyard of the monastery is also worth a visit decorated with colourful wall paintings of Buddhist Kalchakra. All the celebration and public functions are held here. The Hemis festival attracts lots of tourist from across the world. Thanka of the monastery can be seen during the festival every twelfth year which is a sign of good health and spiritual strength.
The monastery is like an institution which traces its intellectual order from the Vajrayana school of Tantric Buddhism which is divided into several sects like Kargyu, Sakya, Gelug. The practices in the monastery are direct lineal descent of the teachings of the Mahayoga Tantra school.
After spending some time in an informative stopover at the Hemis, we were in one of the food courts available there. We found few tents on the banks of the river flowing adjacent to the Monastery, available on rent at Rs. 100/-. Few foreign and domestic tourists were camping there enjoying the spectaculars of the Indus and Himalayas. After having a sumptuous break fast, we rushed to be back on the Leh-Manali highway.
The road upto Upshi was good and at par the Highway, a route from here diverts towards left for Pangong Lake. Hereafter, the character of the terrain starts changing and the road is gradually treacherous and rigorous with sudden steep ups and sharp curves. The little above 100 km journey was a mixture of adventure, peril, test of driving skill and curiosity. We were now at the world’s 2nd highest motorable road at Taglang La at an altitude of 17582 feet. The air here was so rare that we were feeling the scarcity of oxygen despite acclimatizing since last few days. The mountain peaks were on parallel to us and the sight of snow covered mountainous stretches around us was spellbinding. A board on which written, “Enjoy Tea/Coffee at 2nd Highest Motorable Pass” by courtesy of the BRO was very satisfying and proud moment. Multi coloured prayer flags flurrying in air tied around a tiny roundabout on the small flat top plateau at the stopover seemed blessing all of us for reaching there. A triumphant feeling brought tears in my eyes out of immense ecstasy, reaching upto there was never easy and I longed for years with intensity for this moment. Though I wanted to stay longer at this impossible site but it is not at all advisable, due to prone to AMS. With immense joy and satisfaction, we started descending gradually on the journey to confront the onward adverse challenges.
The road now was very uncertain, widely deserted and no sign of vegetation or inhabitants. No traffic, no sign of life, no proper paved road and sometimes not even a sign of any path ahead. The sand and fine dust on the way was a tough test to the two wheel drive, small car. Driving was tougher during crossing the muddy terrain with crude rocks lying underneath. We feared getting stuck to any unwanted crash in the chamber of the car due to low ground clearance. Now I realized, why the drivers at Baltal were opposing us from conducting the journey in a small car. Completely exhausted, I was just praying not to confront any mishap, specially a breakdown because there was no sign of any habitat for miles after miles. As per the road map, we were about to reach Pang, another stopover after 70 km drive through the Moore Plateau, a vast plain at an altitude of over 15000 feet, more rigorous than the elevations and descents so far. We reached Pang, which is a temporary stopover with one or two tents selling tea, water, bread omelets during the four months till the road remains open. I was very tired and exhausted steering cautiously therefore, decided for a short halt at Pang for some tea and a stretching.
It was important to reach Keylong for a comfortable stay at night which was another 200 km through two high passes and the famous Gata Loop, supposed to reach in tentatively 6-7 hours. It was around 12.30 PM at Pang and we were hoping to reach Keylong before it is dark. We were nearing the most famous and adventurous Gata Loop with 21 sharp loops that elevates to an astonishing, above 5000 meters. The round and round loops seem never ending and perilous which require a very cautious and expert driving skill. The landscape is so attractive and picturesque with snow on the peaks of arid mountain spread like icing on a large cake that it spontaneously diverts the driver’s attention. The ascending and descending road was in bad shape making the drive more arduous. A few kilometers further to it, is the Lachulang La, another pass at a height of 16613 feet. The road condition was more or less the same on mostly descends or vast plains. The mountain desert landscape also remains same with occasional military settlements but very dusty and invisible road due to cloud of dust like smoke in the air. Weather was hot and dry and we all turned tanned. Lungs were used to scarce oxygen and eyes trained in finding road amidst the cloud of dust.
A few km before reaching Sarchu, we faced an unexpected incident. At a point of diversion, a bus from Himachal Pradesh, carrying pilgrims from Amarnath Yatra, was on a halt. We thought, the knowledgeable bus driver must be finding a safer way to go down towards the diversion, which was full of sand and dust to avoid getting stuck in the loosen soil or tumbling over. We too, stopped a few meters behind it and so did another vehicle, a Scorpio. All of a sudden, the driver of the bus reversed it without looking into the rear view mirror and smashed the Scorpio, bruising our car on the driver side, damaging the rear bumper of my car too. It all happened so hastily that neither my colleague, in the driver seat nor the other driver in the Scorpio, could react before it was too late. Luckily, both the cars were not damaged to the extent to immediate repairs nor any of the passengers got hurt. We were unnecessarily delayed in sorting the bus driver’s foolishness, who on realizing his mistake begged pardon and admitted suffering symptoms of AMS. The cleaner / conductor of the bus was already suffering similar symptoms and resting due to nausea. It was dark till we reached Sarchu and consequently, had to break our journey there, which was a temporary stopover with ordinary tents available on rent, instead of Keylong as per our plans. This is how unprecedented is the journey in this part of the earth.
Sarchu is though on plain is a bordering place between the J&K and Himachal Pradesh situated between Baralacha La to the south and Lachulung La to the north, at an altitude of 4,290 meter. Also known as Sir Bhum Chun is a major stopover with tented accommodation on the Leh-Manali highway. An Army camp on the banks of river Tsarap Chu is the only inhabitant in the area, open for only four months for general use. The weather here was extremely cold and windy, shivering whole body despite of wearing heavy woolens, gloves and cap. Breathing was not so easy due to scarcity of oxygen in the air and head heavy. We were starving due to no proper meal after the breakfast had at Hemis therefore, we immediately entered into one of the tents (which is home to its owners also for these four months) and ordered a meal. Rice cooked with some vegetables was the only staple food available besides the noodles and bread and butter. We preferred the staple food, no matter how well or bad will be the taste. I washed my hands and face with very hot water as they were full of dirt due to travelling through the cloud of dust all the way and shifted inside the heavy blankets provided in the tent rented for Rs. 1000/- for a night. Honestly, this was the place which, I just wanted to leave immediately and go towards the plains. I have perhaps experienced AMS with very heavy head and nausea consequently I couldn’t have the meal ordered. The night was so dreadful and satanic that I just longed all night breathlessly for the morning.