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Unbelievable is not it?

Manali Travel Blog

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Manali

Anita has to be in Bombay at the end of June, so we realized that if we wanted to see anywhere outside McLeod Ganj we'd better get a move on.  We decided to go to Leh (pronounced "Lay"), the main city in Ladakh, a region in the state called Jammu and Kashmir.  The timing of my India trip has been pretty lousy weather-wise; some of the places I really want to see (namely Rajasthan) are out of the question right now because of the heat and monsoons.  But this time I got it right: The road to Leh is open for only about two months per year (usually June and July), inaccessible the rest of the year due to ice, snow, and generally too-cold weather.

On our looong walk looking for the hot springs
  The trip to Leh is a long one, but we figured this is a rare opportunity to get to a remote and beautiful part of the world.

So, we reluctantly left McLeod Ganj and started the long journey to Leh.  The first leg was a bus ride to Manali, a hill station that's the starting point of the road to Leh.  We took an overnight bus that departed at 8:30pm and arrived at 6:30am.  It was, in a word (or two), not good.  The road had crazy bends, was narrow, and unbelievably bumpy -- so bumpy that I was lifted out of my seat several times.  Once I hit my head on the little fan (that didn't work) above my seat.  I slept maybe two and a half hours. 

We went straight to the Sunflower Hotel, where we had a reservation.

Manali
  Like the bus ride the previous night, it was, in two words, not good.  Two other words to describe it: a dump.  But as it turned out, after doing some investigation into the next leg of the trip, we ended up staying at the hotel for under 24 hours and never slept there.  Dodged that bullet. 

After booking our seats for the ride up to Leh, we walked around Manali.  I don't know, maybe we just didn't see the right parts, but it was nothing thrilling for me.  We took a walk to look for the hot springs everyone talks about, and though we asked for directions many times along the way, we got lost and ended up climbing a steep hill that was obviously not the main route.  The springs have had structures built around them, so people can take baths in them.

Our mini-bus, home for 36 hours
  When we finally found them, we inadvertently (I swear!) wandered into the men's area and saw... um... things we shouldn't have seen.  Much to my surprise, no one said a word to us about being somewhere we clearly shouldn't have been.  We found the women's area, and yeah, the water was hot and all, but with the dirt and smell there was no way I was joining the other dozen or so naked women in there.

Somehow we managed to stay awake until our 2am departure, thinking we'd sleep on the ride to Leh.  The "jeep" (really a mini-bus) was scheduled to depart at 2am and arrive the following evening at 7pm -- a 17-hour drive on the Manali-Leh Highway.  We finally got on the road at 3am, and right away we knew we were in for a rough trip -- an unbelievably windy road, the driver constantly honking the horn, and traffic!  Unfortunately I felt nauseous right away, and had to ask the driver to pull over.

On the road to Leh, waiting for the army trucks to pass
  The road is so narrow that there wasn't really anywhere to go, so he just stopped and let me out.  So there I was on the side of the road, in the dark but with the headlights of the cars behind us shining in my eyes, the other cars all honking at me, kneeling on the ground.  Fun stuff.  I didn't actually get sick and could've used more time out there, but with all the honking I got back on the bus.  When we started moving again I felt so lousy that I started to cry.  Anita was wonderful, stroking my back, telling me it would be alright.  I said if we would just stop moving I would feel better... and lo and behold, we stopped moving.  I never figured out exactly what was going on, but I got my wish: There was some sort of traffic jam that had us sitting there for over two hours.
On the Leh-Manali Highway
  Anita says I have special powers and should be careful about what I wish for aloud.

When we finally got going in earnest, I wished I'd napped earlier in the day -- sleeping on this bus, with all the twists and bumps, was going to be impossible.  In the early afternoon we had to stop (along with dozens of other vehicles) and wait for 30 army trucks to pass, which took over an hour.  At that point I heard a rumor from another passenger that we wouldn't make it to Leh that night, and would have to sleep in tents.  My college roommates used to joke that my idea of camping was staying in a Motel 6, and they weren't too far off.  I've come a long way since then (mostly in India), but sleeping in a tent in the Himalayas wasn't a thrilling prospect.

  Maybe it was a good thing that everyone on the bus was so uncomfortable -- some nauseous, or dealing with massive headaches from the sudden rise in altitude -- because when we got to those tents at 8pm we were just relieved to have somewhere horizontal to rest our heads.

We all claimed mattresses, used the great outdoors as a bathroom, and climbed under the surprisingly thick, warm blankets.  I woke up at 5am, my breath visible in the freezing cold.  We got going by 7:30am, but by 7:35 had yet another delay: One of the other buses we were traveling with had a flat tire.  It did seem quite comical at that point.  I now know that the area where we slept -- that literally consisted of eight giant tents -- is on maps of India, and has a name (Pang) as if it's a town.

  That's a testament to just how in-the-middle-of-nowhere we really were.  Pang is the biggest thing around -- and certainly the only place to sleep -- for hours.

Soon after leaving Pang we got to the second highest motorable pass in the world, at over 17,000 feet.  The views were incredible, but the altitude was literally dizzying.  The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, though just as uncomfortable.  We finally arrived in Leh at 2pm on the dot, which meant that the trip took 36 hours door to door.  We had a reservation at a guest house for the previous night, but with no cell phone reception in the middle of the Himalayas, we had no way to call to explain our absence and make sure the room would be available when we arrived.  Thankfully it worked out fine; our room is very comfortable and clean, with an incredible view of the mountains.

Hmm...
  The man who runs the guest house, John, has had enough guests get stuck overnight in the Himalayas that he knew what was up; not only was he not annoyed that we were late, but he was concerned for our welfare and couldn't have been more gracious.  Now that the trip is a few days behind me, I'm glad I did it -- the scenery was spectacular and it was certainly an adventure I won't soon forget -- but once was enough.  When I leave Leh, it'll be in a plane. 

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Manali
Manali
On our looong walk looking for the…
On our looong walk looking for th…
Manali
Manali
Our mini-bus, home for 36 hours
Our mini-bus, home for 36 hours
On the road to Leh, waiting for th…
On the road to Leh, waiting for t…
On the Leh-Manali Highway
On the Leh-Manali Highway
Hmm...
Hmm...
One stunning view after another
One stunning view after another
Pang, a town of tents!
Pang, a "town" of tents!
Inside a tent in Pang
Inside a tent in Pang
A Tibetan woman and her son mainta…
A Tibetan woman and her son maint…
Waylaid by a flat tire
Waylaid by a flat tire
Those little dots in the distance …
Those little dots in the distance…
That should read: Second highest p…
That should read: Second highest …
The view from Taglangla
The view from Taglangla
These women work on building and r…
These women work on building and …
Manali
photo by: debrasiegel