Matt and I decided to take a jeep from Manali to Leh. The total estimated time for the trip is 18 hours. Going by jeep is still quicker than the bus, which takes 2 days, and we were able to secure front seats in the jeep so that we (Matt) could take better photos along the way.
Our trip was set to being at 2:00 in the morning with a pick-up from our hotel. Matt and I groggily checked out of our hotel to realize we were on a pedestrian only street, and wondered where our ride would be picking us up. As we stood in the deserted street with our big packs on, two patrolling police stopped to question Matt while I giggled quietly to myself.
Police: “Hello. What are you doing?”
Matt: “Uh, we’re waiting for our jeep to Leh.”
Police: “Have you already booked your ticket?”
Matt: “Yes, we have it.”
I found this to be funny because it was 2 o’clock in the morning on a street that did not allow cars. What did the policeman think we were going to do if we hadn’t booked a ticket? Hail a cab and ask them to drive us 18 hours north? It seemed obvious to me that if we said we were waiting for a jeep that we would have already booked our ticket. The police continued on down the road and a few minutes later our “pick-up,” a runner for the taxi company, came to let us know we had to walk 40 yards down the street to the bus stand where all the jeeps were waiting.
At about 2:15am we found our jeep among several others and our driver loaded up all the bags on top, covering them with a tarp. And then we waited to leave. The front and middle rows in the jeep are forward facing bench seats which “fit” three and four people respectively. The back of the jeep has two side facing bench seats that fit four more people. Including the driver there were 11 of us, a full car. We stood outside the car, watching a group of men (possibly other drivers or tour operators?) who were talking and sharing a bottle of beer as we waited for a sign that we would leave soon. About an hour later a man in a white kurta on a motorbike (who seemed to be in charge of the beer) looked at us and enthusiastically announced it was time for us to get in the jeep. Thankfully he was not a driver.
We settled in for the long ride ahead. I thought maybe I could get some sleep but was quite wrong. From the beginning the ride was very bumpy as we drove over dirt roads and rocks (an old riverbed perhaps?). Sitting in the front provided a good view of the road ahead and I could see that although the ride was bumpy, the driver was avoiding the big potholes in the road. One word kept repeating through my mind as I made out the narrow road ahead and the cliff to the edge: precarious. I couldn’t believe that I would be sitting in a jeep with no seatbelts (sorry mom) for the next 18 hours traversing roads like this. We crossed more rocks, honked at a few nocturnal cows, and made our way over little waterfalls as we drove up the mountain. About 30-40 minutes into the drive I heard a loud pop followed by a quick rush of air. A flat tire. Already. Luckily the jeeps to Leh travel caravan style and a couple jeeps stopped to help as our driver put on the extra tire.
For the next few hours I tried to sleep, waking up every now and then as we drove through a bumpy patch or if my head bobbled to one side, either hitting Matt’s head, the window, or falling backwards (no headrest) giving me a mild jolt. As the daylight broke I slowly woke up to the most beautiful gray and green mountain side, leading to a valley below. Little horses grazed along the side of the road, and gentle waterfalls trickled down the side of the mountain and over the road on its way down to the river below. At this point Matt began taking an endless stream of pictures, and I will let him (and the photos) finish the story of our drive through the ever changing and very majestic Himalayas.
Originally, I was thinking about breaking the aforementioned jeep ride story into multiple blog entries. There are so many angles I could take with it. I could describe what Joylani ended her entry with, the indescribable scenery and landscapes we drove through. Perhaps I could make it a story about transportation in India, which might even be more indescribable than the landscapes. Or I could write about how sick and miserable I was during the last five or six hours. All would be good stories in themselves, but I feel an obligation to write about everything in the same entry- I will explain my reasons at the end of the story.
Joylani left off when she woke up around dawn, just as an unseen morning sun was illuminating the magnificent high-altitude pass and accompanying valley of Rohtang-La. We rolled down the windows to take photos and breathe in the crisp morning air of the Himalayas. It was refreshing after three hours of sleepless bouncing around in the jeep and only about 45 minutes of sleep the night before. I’m not sure why I couldn’t sleep that night- perhaps it was the anticipation of finally going to someplace I’ve dreamed of returning to for the past three years. As we descended from Rohtang-La into a bottomless valley, my dreams of returning to the Great Himalayas were realized. We were in the midst of a landscape unparalleled anywhere on earth. After two weeks of being sick and largely unimpressed, Joylani was truly mesmerized. After chaotic Delhi, interesting Dharamsala, and scenic Manali, we were finally seeing and experiencing something extraordinary. Joylani did a good job of describing Rohtang-La, although even this photo does not do the place justice.
After we turned the last switchback and reached a small village at the bottom of the valley, we stopped for a break. After handing our passports to the driver, who needed them for the checkpoint, we stepped out into the beautiful morning. Next to the river, we looked up at the mountains we had just descended to see dozens of waterfalls and small streams cascading and trickling down to the river. It was amazing to the see their paths cut through the green-covered mountains from the snow-capped peaks and glaciers all the way down to where we were.
After admiring God’s creation for a few minutes, I asked someone where I could find a bathroom. It turned out that there were no bathrooms in the village; the bathroom was “open.” Familiar with “open” already, I walked up above the village where I found a clump of bushes I could squat behind. It was hardly private, but at least I could go. In fact, while I sat there doing my business, another foreigner came scrambling up the hill, frantically looking for a place to relieve his Delhi-belly. Seeing I already had the spot, he frustratedly ran further up the hill. It made me laugh. Meanwhile, Joylani had found a spot below the village to go. She popped a squat and did her thing, but right as she finished a man popped out of an unseen hut and scolded her, “Here NOT bathroom.” (note from Joylani: it wasn’t an unseen hut, I just didn’t care because I had to pee!) Having stretched, relieved ourselves, and passports checked, we were soon herded back into the jeep for another few hours.
We drove along the meandering river for awhile, as the sky grew brighter. The sun’s rays angled farther and farther down, until the sun itself finally peaked over the mountains. As Joylani mentioned though, this wasn’t a leisurely scenic drive in the country. This part of the road was unpaved, like the majority of the drive. But, as Joylani said, our young driver skillfully maneuvered around potholes and large rocks. It was still extremely bumpy, as any dirt and rock road would be, but we were in the front seat and seeing the incredible.
At around 7:30 am, we stopped for breakfast at another extremely small village (several tents and a couple food stalls). Between momos, fried egg, and maggi (like a saucy top-ramen), I chose fried eggs. I love momos, but not having seen any agriculture or poultry for hours, I decided against them (good thing because some other people in our jeep ordered them and hated them). That’s one thing I hate about the remote parts of the Himalaya- there’s never any good food. Even worse, it always the same bad food: maggi or fried eggs. My eggs were greasy and oily and tasted pretty bad. But at the same time, it was an amazing moment in time. Over the past two years, whenever I was frustrated at work, I would always think about what I’d be doing once we were on this trip. And we were finally living one of my daydreams. We were sitting in some remote part of the mountains, sipping chai, enjoying the clean and crisp mountain air, together. Although the eggs were gross and I was really starting to feel tired, what could be better?
Additionally, we talked to and began to get to know another couple that was in our jeep, Anderson and Liz. Married, from Iowa, and a year or two older than us, they are almost a year into their around-the-world trip. They were traveling with their cousin Reannon, too. It was cool talking to them at breakfast, throughout the entire jeep ride, and even during our stay in Leh, because I feel we could really identify with each other. We talked about moving out of our apartments, what we did before, what we’d like to do in the future, where we’ve all been and would like to go, budgets, and so forth. We continued talking throughout the day.
The day, however, had hardly begun. We’d been on the road for about five hours, it was only 8am, and we had at least another 12 hours ahead of us. Despite being extremely tired, the bumpy ride kept me pretty awake the entire day. Once, I began to nod off, when my head fell down to the left and banged hard against the partially open window. With a bruise just to the left of my eye, I tried to stay awake. The bumpiness and winding roads took a heavier toll on others in the jeep. A couple times, we stopped so Liz could jump out and hurl. I felt bad for her- feeling sick on such an incredible ride. I guess it could’ve been worse though, as a guy in another jeep in our caravan got barfed on. As the day stretched on, Joylani and I rotated between the middle seat (cramped by the stick shift) and the window seat. The scenery was continually amazing, although I’ll spare you the play-by-play (“and then we came across this incredible valley…then we saw the most amazing mountains…”). Instead, I’ll attempt to entertain you with some photos of every obstacle we came across. (Joylani: As you can see, this ain’t no I-5)
Stream over the road
Curvy Roads and Hairpin Turns
Stuck in sand
By the early afternoon, everyone in the car was sleeping except me. I couldn’t fall asleep and a headache began to build as we snaked our way up to the second high-pass of the day, this one over 5000 meters. Partly from not sleeping and partly from going from 2000 meters to 5000 meters so quickly, I felt miserable at the top. I felt a little bit better as we descended, but then all the bumping around in the car began to get to me. Others in the car had been noticeably sick throughout the day, probably since they were sitting closer to the rear. Joylani, luckily though, who had been sick for days before, only felt a little light headed. I was glad she was finally feeling better and kind of amazed that she was doing so well. And I was surprised that I was feeling so bad. In the past, I’ve usually been the one that isn’t affected as much by altitude, compared to my friends. But it was a reminder of how little I was. As if the scale of the Himalayas all day didn’t remind me of that, the altitude certainly humbled me. We were not conquering the mountains by summiting the high passes or getting through them- we were simply enduring them.
The last major stop on the Manali-Leh “road” is Pang, which is not much more than a cluster of tents offering food and accommodation on a temporarily dry river flood plain. I got out of my jeep, found out that obviously the bathroom was “open,” and headed for the other side of the road embankment. Next to the river, with a small hill behind me, I popped a squat. Having been healthy most of the trip, but barely eating anything all day, my GI tract had finally succumbed to the subcontinent. As I sat there, feeling sick, I then puked. I finished up my business and then walked over to the river, where on hands and knees, I expelled all the water and Marie Gold biscuits I’d been consuming all day. After washing off, I headed back to the jeep to sit and rest. It was about two minutes before I was back by the river diarrhea-ing and puking some more. As I was lightening my load, I thought about how sick I felt. But looking around, I was in a beautiful place. I guess this was the price of admission to such an amazing place. The cold water felt good as I washed my hands and face, although the cold was biting as I trudged back to the jeep.
After Pang, we began our ascent up to Taglang-La, our final high-pass. I was fearing this one, as it was the second-highest in the world at 17,582 feet. Last time I was in Leh, I traversed this pass and felt sick despite having already acclimatized. This time, I was already feeling sick and had started the day at a mere 6700 feet. Of course, before we got to the pass, our clutch went out, which took a good 20-30 minutes for our driver to fix. (Joylani: fixing the clutch meant our driver had to lay beneath the car to fiddle with the stick while one of the other drivers got in his seat and teased our driver by slowly rolling the car forward, eliciting (presumably) a string of Hindi curse words from our driver and lots of laughs from the everyone else. Our driver emerged covered in grease the first time, the second time covered in powdery sand.) Not long after that, another jeep in our caravan got stuck in the sand of the high desert plateau, and our jeep’s clutch went out again. Travel in India rarely goes as planned and although I’ve pushed my fair share of buses and had plenty of vehicles break down mid-journey, this was the worst. Since Pang, my headache had only worsened, probably due to the fact that we were continually driving between 10-15,000 feet. Being stopped in cold desert with a terrible headache, while trying to help lodge rocks under tires and push a jeep was only prolonging our journey. After 45 minutes to an hour, we were on the road again. Well, figuratively speaking, as we were basically driving across an open plain.
We did end up reaching the pass, where we stopped for a couple minutes. Just long enough for Joylani to take one of the coldest pees of her life (“open bathroom”) and to take a quick picture next to the Taglang-La sign. I think everyone in the jeep was feeling the altitude, a bit of car-sickness, and the cold. As we descended down towards Leh, my headache eased, although I only focused on trying not to throw-up for the next three hours. When we finally did stop about three hours later (about an hour from Leh), the altitude was still hurting. While our driver had hopped out for a quick snack, everyone else stayed in the car, too tired or sick to get out. I stepped out and puked all the water I had drunk the past couple hours right there next to the front tire. I then walked behind a wall, since of course this small town only had “open” bathroom. Puking next to the jeep at that snack stop was one of my most miserable moments. I can’t remember if I’ve ever continually puked and had the runs simultaneously. And if I have, it hasn’t been at least an hour’s bumpy jeep ride away from a place to stay, with altitude and sleep-deprivation working against me.
The last hour of the ride went by fairly quickly. We got into town, haggled with too many hoteliers, finally found a place, and quickly passed out leaving my throbbing headache behind. And that was our day. Our ride lasted from 3 am until 9 pm. And although we only traversed a 475 km, our ride spanned 3278m in altitude. While the first two-thirds of the ride were pure excitement, the last five hours were miserable. Despite this, the last leg of the trip was still filled with new and sublime landscapes. And despite my feeling sick, Joylani’s exhaustion, a flat tire, a broken clutch, and getting stuck in the desert, we made it. We endured the journey and we made it. We didn’t do anything, but sit (and bounce), but we still arrived in Leh with a sense of accomplishment.
The reason I feel obligated to write only one entry rather than split it up by topics, is that this is how it was. To write just about the landscape and focus on the scenery, without the sickness and rigors of travel, would be to idealize the journey, and travel in general. To focus on just the bad would be to neglect everything that can be appreciated, even under difficult circumstances. And to entirely focus on or neglect the standard of transportation wouldn’t be telling the story at all. I can honestly say that that overland journey was the best and worst I’ve ever embarked on. The question obviously is then: Is it worth feeling miserable to see the unimaginable? I would say so, within reason of course. One of my favorite authors, Paul Theroux, has written that travel is rarely comfortable. And I tend to agree, travel is often tough. But if comfort were our first priority and our focus, we’d never see anything truly awesome. We probably wouldn’t visit Asia, certainly not India, and never go on such a crazy jeep ride. But we did. We sacrificed our comfort for a day, just a day, and saw things we couldn’t imagine and will never forget.