One of the highest roads in the world, the Leh-Manali highway acts as a vital artery dissecting the most inhospitable regions of the Himalaya Mountains.
It traverses several high mountain passes up to 5,325m, and some of the roads reach 5,600 metres above mean sea level. Mountain sickness due to the high altitudes and the low-oxygen air is therefore a real and, at least by us, deeply-experienced phenomenon.
Most of our group was afflicted by either nausea or spiky headaches, or both, and with many of us already suffering from underlying and severely pokey tummies it made for an eclectic range of reasons to violently and erratically pull over to the side of the rubbly road with sheer drops all around, quite frequently, and a disastrous/entertaining 24hr journey.
The landscape was how I would imagine that on the moon; unfathomable rock formations suddenly smoothing out to a sublime mountainous desertscape as we neared the expanse of land on which we would be camping with up to 150,000 fellow attendees at the 34th Kalachakra initiations in Leh, Ladakh, in the Jammu and Kashmir region of northern India, including the XIV Dalai Lama himself, revered by Tibetans as a ‘Living God’.
The sky mood-swung from shedding jagged hail in the opaque night, to the sun smiling with an unrestrained gleam as the hours peeled apart the day.
Upon leaving Leh, we planned a leg of driving to Kargil just 4 hours away and a relatively mere 131 miles west of Kargil, but things weren’t so simple as there had been a landslide of (what looked like) craters and veritable chunks of the mountain that somewhat hindered our idyllic progression. We only had to swing our legs off the edge of the mountains for half a dozen hours or so, chatting with the only other humans we had seen all day (officers from the India Army in intimidatingly large trucks) as the impressive Border Roads Organisation (BRO) wielded machines to clear the roads for us of inter-galactic looking, and sized, rocks.
Some interesting notes of caution when driving on the highest roads in the world, in India:
- drivers will push on as rubble falls over the precipice; it is rare to see a vehicle reverse and manoeuvre around another (however much more sense that might seem to make to you);
- signs read: ‘Kill your speed, not your wife.’ Warnings such as these, and those sometimes more extreme, give more than a touch of the surreal to this already otherwordly vista.
The third of a series of reminiscences of my second trip to India, Summer 2014.
© Gabriella Zoe Harris. All rights reserved.