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  • Manali to Leh

    Posted on September 8th, 2009 Sheila Yair No comments

    The Manali to Leh road is just a little to beautiful for words so instead of doing it injustice by trying to describe it I will just provide a link for the photos.

    I will just say that you go through 4 passes and about 5 different climates. We also broke the trip for a little bit and camped two nights at Tso Kar Lake.

    click here to see photos

  • A Kullu Valley Moment

    Posted on September 8th, 2009 Sheila Yair 2 comments

    traffic2We are in Kaylong, which is in the north of the second most northern state in India. So we are way up north, on the edge of the Himalayas. Before we take the two to three day journey up to Ladakh, we decide to go to Manali. Manali is the second largest city in Himachal Pradesh and the capital of the lush green fertile Kullu valley. We need to do some shopping, replace some items of clothing that were worn thin by all our trekking. We need to get some camping supplies, Manali is famous for its nuts and dried fruit, and also since Manali is the base for the Manali Ladakh trip, we thought we might be able to organize a group to share a jeep.

    Himachal Pradesh is a very hilly state, filled with mountains. To have and maintain roads in this terrain is a great achievement or constant struggle, depending on how you want to look at it. There is a network of roads, going up and down huge mountains, crossing mighty rivers and connecting towns and villages in remote valleys. The roads are usually narrow, dirt with patches of asphalt, with rivers crossing them and not vice versa (i.e. the river goes over the road, and not the road over the river, like we are used to). This makes them passable pretty much to only jeeps and rugged state busses. It is not uncommon to stare into the distance from your bus window and see something that looks like a goat trail zigzagging up a mountain. You think to yourself, wow, who would walk all the way up there only to discover half an hour later that it is your road and to find yourself climbing a huge hill just to avoid a cliff, bend in the river, or any other obstacle. The distance between two points can be 10 km, but due to the terrain, the road might be as long as 50 km. The road builders here like to call themselves, ‘mountain-tamers’, but their job is never done, and the mountains are definitely never tamed.

    Come autumn, the snow begins falling, and the roads close. They lay under a thick blanket of snow the entire winter, leaving a lot of the villages totally cut off. In spring, the snow starts melting, and the water comes gushing down taking big chunks of the road as souvenirs. So the only time these roads are open, their shining moment is in summer. That’s when the monsoon arrives, and Mother Nature pounds these roads with huge drops of water on a near daily basis. Summer is also the only time work can be done on the roads. So often, you will have to wait for a bulldozer or a tractor shovel to clear a patch of road, to re-lay the rocks, or rebuild the edge. Most labor is done manually and all along the roads, you can see workers chiseling away, making gravel from rocks, digging drain tunnels and flattening the road. You see their camps all along the roadside. But, it is like building a sandcastle on the edge of the water, you can constantly rebuild it, but it will never last for more than two minutes before a wave washes half of it away.

    These are the roads we take to Manali. Our specific one goes through Rohtang Pass, which is at 3,978 meters above sea level. Rohtang means, ‘piles of dead bodies’; it is named so for the people who die in snowstorms on the pass each year. I’m not sure how people die so close to such a main road, but that is the name. We go through the beautiful Chandra valley for about an hour and then start our ascent to the pass. The road zigzags for 15 km to gain around 2,000 meters of altitude. The views are spectacular up until the last kilometer, in which we enter a big thick cloud. It is summer and the clouds love nestling up on the peaks (perhaps like us, they just want to escape the heat). We can’t see much through the fog only the road workers, their mules, and the two temples marking the pass, one Hindi and one Buddhist. At one point I feel the bus starting to descend and I know that I have crossed the pass without contributing to its name. Once out of the cloud we see below us the lush green Kullu valley. We don’t drive too long before we stop. There is a long line of trucks and busses ahead of us. Since the road is zigzagging, 200 meters below you, you can see traffic that is 1 km ahead. The two rows below us are clogged with downward traffic, and the third, forth and fifth with upward traffic. No one is budging. The trucks and busses who are transferring goods, locals, and tourists between Kullu, Lahul Spiti, and Ladakh, are at a complete halt. As I walk to the end of the long line of traffic, I see that there was a big landslide that left 200 meters of uncrossable mud. Lahul Spiti’s only connection to the outer world is this road. So 56,000 square km are cut off by 200 meters of mud (and by now kilometers of traffic). Apparently this happens a lot on this road and the systems spring into action. A bulldozer, as I mentioned there are many of them around, is pulling a stuck bus, a tractor is slowly making its way up, and the road workers are taking stones from the side and laying them on the road, or rather the patch of mud that was the road.

    But we could not have stopped in a better place. Below, we see the valley, we see Marhi, the cluster of restaurants where ascending traffic usually stops, we see its temple and a pool of water formed by one of the streams, probably a holy one. To the right, there is a paraglider station, there are a couple of cyclists slowly making their way up, and tourists, mostly Israeli, on motorcycles with huge backpacks strapped to the back passing the long line of trucks and busses. Although the latter are at a complete stop, Kullu valley moves ahead at full speed. Gliders are soaring through the air, the cyclists are slowly and painstakingly peddling up, the motorcyclists are all conjugating at the mud, where they are prevented by the police from continuing, and passengers and drivers are walking up and down the road, giving advice, asking questions, or just looking about. But the happiest are the opportunity grabbing snack sellers, which by now have made it up from Marhi. Most of them have a big pot of chickpeas, which they mix with fresh tomatoes and onions, add lime, chilly and spices, and sell in a bowl made of dried leaves. They walk with the pot on their heads and set it down the second someone seems to show any interest. There is a chai seller with a thermos and two cups going from truck to truck only occasionally stopping by a stream to wash the glasses. But the most entrepreneurial of them all is a guy walking with a milk crate, in it a wok with charcoals, selling hot barbecued corn on the cob. Now Kullu valley is green for a reason and after half an hour of this show it starts raining.

    So we are a little more than a kilometer from Marhi as the crow flies, around 5 km by road, and who knows how far from it time wise. But we have seen the essence of Kullu valley, its people, its commerce, its tourism, and even its weather.