This is the Second Chapter of a series of posts about ‘how I got Leh’d’. In this series, I have covered everything related to my Stok Kangri Trek Expedition. Just to let you know that Stok Kangri is the highest trek-able peak in India. In a series of articles, I have covered EVERY SINGLE ASPECT from planning to mapping to packing your rucksack and obviously the entire trekking experience.
In this chapter, I will narrate to you my story of reaching Leh from Delhi. A small error in decision making made this journey EPIC and ADVENTUROUS in every sense. From taking the wrong bus to hitch-hiking, to suffering from AMS, this story has everything!
The Manali – Leh Highway (NH-3) stays open for a limited time period every year and in 2015 it was supposed to open on 2nd July. The trek itinerary was scheduled from the 5th. I wanted to be on the first batch of travelers from Delhi to Leh by road (that year). Well, that did not happen. Read on to find out what all happened on my Delhi-Leh Road Trip.
Delhi-Leh Road Trip – the journey begins
First Stop: Kashmere Gate ISBT (Inter State Bus Terminal), Delhi (Elevation – 216 m)
2nd July, 1:50 A.M.
As I was getting the bags out of the trunk, Swiner (looked all perplexed) came to me asking if we were at the right location because the place looked pretty abandoned. Which, to my surprise was the right word to describe the scene.
We went inside the main building and almost everyone was on the ground, some were hanging from the chairs in the waiting area. For a moment it felt like Kasab got there before us (instead this time with a dart gun). Looking like dormant zombies they were all just sound asleep which was good for them but bad for us because there was not a single person awake to enquire about stuff. So I had to be the rude person (because Swiner didn’t speak the local tongue) and nudged one of the tour operators. When I asked him at what time is the first bus to Manali or Leh he just blabbered in his sleep that the first bus service to anywhere does not start until 4 AM, but he gestured five. So at that point, apart from the time, everything made sense. We understood that our excitement had cost us and found a corner among the sleeping zombies. Swiner spent the entire time playing Clash of Clans.
The stark difference between bus-terminus of Delhi and Keylong!
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Around 4 AM when I saw some movement near the buses I went on to investigate and found out there was a bus scheduled at 5 AM, not to Manali, but to Mandi (a small hill-station in Himachal Pradesh and Manali is about 3 hours from there).
We decided to take it as we were bored to death and with that 5 AM bus started our Delhi-Leh Road Trip. Also, the conductor suggested there would be plenty of connecting buses to Manali leaving every 10mins from Mandi. The bus was a “state-bus” (government) so you have an idea of its state. The seats have negligible cushion(that too with scabbed out pieces) but you cannot complain because the fare is too less. However, after traveling for over 10 hours in a bus like that, all your body parts definitely complain to you for being a cheapster.
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Second Stop: Mandi (Elevation – 760 m)
2nd July, 7:05 P.M.
We reached Mandi almost 2 hours behind schedule and the only bus we could find was to Kullu which is 2 hours from there (generally) and 1 hour before Manali. That bus was a local bus and it stopped at every bus stop between Mandi and Kullu and we were mentally prepared to spend the night at Kullu because Manali seemed unreachable. (which later on worked for our advantage because getting a room in Manali, in the month of July, is difficult compared to getting one in Kullu)
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Third Stop: Kullu (Elevation – 1279 m)
2nd July, 9:30 P.M.
Welcome to breathtaking sceneries…
We touched base in Kullu (not a soul in the bus stand) and the first thing we did was to check the bus timings for Manali/Keylong/Leh and to my surprise I found a series of buses to Keylong starting from 8 in the morning to 12:30 in the afternoon. So we checked into a room (Rs.900 per night, deluxe double bed), decided to rest properly and hence planned to aim for the second last bus. Then Swiner took a bath and subsequently I took a shower (peer pressure I guess). We should not have done that. The next morning both of us woke up with cold and heavily clogged noses. We managed to get ourselves seated on the last bus for Keylong. Then began one of the most picturesque journeys anyone can ever witness. Especially the change of terrain after Rohtang Pass (3978m). Looking at the mighty mountains, being surrounded by them, traveling along the Chenab River, was somewhat fixing our cold situation.
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Fourth Stop: Keylong (Elevation – 3080 m)
3rd July, 8:50 P.M.
no-cellphone-network zone begins…
Keylong welcomed us with no cellphone reception and again no one at the bus stand. But we could see the bus (first batch) to Leh parked right there. After asking the locals we came to the conclusion that we are stuck there for more than 24 hours (unless we want to commute on the roof of the bus in subzero temperatures) since there is only one bus for Leh every day scheduled to leave at 4:30 A.M. in the morning and tickets for this bus are only available at the bus stand at 6:00 P.M. on the previous day. We checked into a room near the bus stand (Rs. 800 per night) hoping to snatch two tickets at the stroke of 6 the next evening. Only Aircel and BSNL had towers there back then and communicating about the delay to our trek operators became a problem. Basically no one knew where we were except the infinite, clearly visible, stars above our heads. It was cold in Keylong and cozily sandwiched between bed and blanket, we slept like babies. Though my nose kept running all night.
The next day we went around walking in the well planned and beautiful hill station. Made some German, Czech and Spanish friends (had delicious local food – Thukpa with them) only to find out later that they were competitors for the limited seats on the bus because it does not start from Keylong. It was already about half-filled and was coming from Delhi (the first batch of which we could have boarded from Kashmere Gate ISBT if we waited for a few more hours there). However, fortunately, all of us got our tickets and the next day we left Keylong at 4:30 in the morning. I was eagerly waiting for sunrise.
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Scenery changes – time for barren lands
The scenes got all barren and rugged with open boulders and non-barricaded highways. Definitely not for the faint hearts. The bus stopped at an Indian Army check post and all the foreign passports were taken by the conductor and submitted for checking. [Non-Indians: Kindly remember to take them back after checking is done]
About an hour later the bus stopped again but this time on the highway behind a queue of trucks. After the driver got down we followed him. What was blocking everyone’s way was a huge boulder in the middle of the road and the fall had only broken it into two pieces (¾ and ¼), both heavy enough to require lots of human power to move any. The truck drivers had figured out the way, however static friction of all forces was troubling them the most. The solution was to roll/push the smaller piece off the edge of the road into the gorge; which would make enough space but it was not easy to move. We tried to help and our German friend almost slipped off the edge. Then I climbed on top of the boulders placing myself between them and using the bigger one as a backrest, I started pushing the smaller one with my legs. Swiner hopped on and using our developed footballing leg muscles and some physics we all were able to roll it off the edge.
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Higher altitudes and AMS
Then moving forward, the roads took to altitudes like 4500m to 5000m traversing through a number of high-altitude passes. Until crossing Baralacha La/Pass (4890m) I was having a gala time recording videos of the road and the stunning landscapes through the windshield. Then I felt it. A strange headache, bilaterally around the area above each ear. Soon feelings of light nausea started kicking in. The topography of the road took control over my peristaltic movements so I went and sat down on my seat resting my head on the rod in front and hoping to reach Pang as soon as possible for the lunch stop which was still about an hour ahead (information courtesy – the very friendly driver). However, just before reaching Pang, sitting through the 21 hairpin bends at Gata Loops was quite a challenge.
While the human body undergoes variations in altitude over a short period of time, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) a.k.a. Altitude Sickness can happen to anyone, but it will definitely happen to someone who does not keep themselves hydrated. Someone who might forget to drink water regularly. Someone like me.
Swiner was a huge support throughout and we figured he was not having any trouble adapting to the lesser oxygen levels since his hometown, Bogota (2640m), is at a significant altitude and this has conditioned his lungs accordingly. I, on the other hand, have been born and brought up in the Indian lowlands where oxygen and pollution both are in abundance. It was the lack of either oxygen or pollution(since that is what my lungs are conditioned to). So making peace with this realization and joining the symptoms together, I reconciled with the fact that how bad could a fever and runny nose be along with minor AMS and how it can make me lose the opportunity to trek to Stok Kangri (whose itinerary had already begun that very day; booked in advance and paid in full).
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What happens when your body is not ready for high altitudes…
Fifth Stop : Pang (Elevation – 4600m)
5th July, 2:50 P.M.
Occasionally looking at the stunning and breathtaking views outside but keeping my head down for most of the journey till we reached Pang, I kept thinking if I should pop in a Diamox tablet. The headache had aggravated and I could barely keep my eyes open. It had spread over to my forehead and my cold was irritating the hell out of me. I wanted my body to tackle it and adapt to the change without external medication. Pang (An Indian Army Camp) has an Army Medical tent with doctors that could have treated me had I chosen to go there. Instead, I had some rice and an omelet which I thought made me feel better(only for about 15mins). Just before we were heading to board the bus I took a detour and threw up some of that food behind a tent. After feeling bad about polluting the place I went and took my seat.
The bus climbed up the steep roads atop the campsite making me very nauseous in the process. I was not feeling any better when we all heard a sudden and loud snapping noise and subsequently, the bus stopped. Apparently the air-pipe (of the vehicle) had broken and while they were fixing it everyone got down of the bus. It was then that I found out I was not the only one being troubled by the altitude. While sitting on those rocks on the side of the roads, I threw up the rest of my food and the bright mountain sun was not helping in any way(especially because of the headache and clogged nose). While I was struggling with my food-pipe and wind-pipe, they finished fixing the air-pipe of the bus. Swiner told me a “rubber sheath” was required in the process and the solution was hiding inside a fellow passenger’s wallet. Whoever thought of this “indigenous” idea did not account for a lot of physics, probably too overwhelmed by the solution.
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About less than an hour later, the bus was traveling through a serene valley with straight roads and barren mountains on all horizons. Such a peaceful view was making me force my eyes open. Then everyone’s peace of mind got robbed with another sudden and loud snap. This time everyone got down and there was no other solution than to call for help or rather to go get help. After all, no one must risk riding after the rubber snaps. The quickest help could only come from Pang and one would have to reach the campsite, arrange for a ride for 40 people to Leh and get it to the place where we all were basically stranded. All of that sounded very probabilistic and given the fact that Swiner and I were on a tight schedule, we had no other choice but to ditch the group.
Time for some hitch-hiking!
While Swiner was getting our bags and his passport, I was preparing myself to function properly as the situation was calling for it. As Swiner stood there carrying the weights of both our rucksacks, I tried to hitch a ride for us with clenched eyebrows. With whatever words I could think of and after failing a couple of times (Swiner kept motivating), I managed to convince a truck driver. However, he said he could only drop us till Upshi which was about 40kms before Leh but nothing seemed to be a problem when we saw he had a bed instead of passenger seats in his cab. Soon after climbing up and taking off our shoes I had some water and dozed off into a long slumber.
I had not expected Swiner would go through such experiences in India.
But now we both have this incredible memory to cherish and a wonderful story to tell..!!
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Sixth Stop: Upshi (Elevation – 3384 m)
5th July, 8:25 P.M.
I woke up and was happy to know that I slept through Tanglang La (5328m – the highest motorable road on that route). The kind truck driver dropped us just a kilometer outside the main town of Upshi and we insisted him to take some amount from us as a token of goodwill. I did forget my drinking flask on his driving compartment bed but I could not even think about such things at that moment. I think by that time it was out of water anyway. Swiner was still carrying my bag as we walked towards the town. It was fairly dark but our guardian stars were keeping the path lit enough. We didn’t want to waste our flashlight batteries. As we hit the town, though very few people, all were busy with their own things. There was yet no cellphone reception meaning our trek operators were uninformed of the fact that we are on the way.
I spotted an Army Checkpost and we headed towards it. A couple of bikers were registering their trip (a formal, very short, check-in/check-out register). As they were signing I found my momentary window to ask the officer what was the best way to get to Leh at that moment as we cannot miss our trek. I loved how promptly he answered to that. He suggested us to hitch a ride with those bikers and each of them can have a pillion. The bikers were understanding and agreed to the solution but before commencing with the trip we got to know they would only be going till Karu as they have been driving for 16 hours straight and won’t make it till Leh without rest. We had no choice but honestly, it wasn’t that bad. Swiner got seated on the KTM Duke 390 and I hopped on the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350. They were fast! And it was a ride I will never forget. My headache and cold got cured. That’s what I thought. But basically I was just numb from the neck to the crown. The cold air added to the challenge of “small talk” cause he had to know where I am from and how is Swiner my friend. Fortunately, the roads had no hairpin bends and that stretch is pretty much in a valley. Swiner was happy asking questions about his favorite bike (the KTM) all throughout the journey.
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Seventh Stop: Karu (Elevation – 3963 m)
5th July, 8:55 P.M.
The kind and tired bikers dropped us near the main roundabout and through the dizziness, I could see a few Toyota Innovas (generally a taxi in the Himalayas/mountain regions). Thanking the bikers we moved ahead and found out that indeed they were rental cabs. After some bargaining, we mutually agreed on Rs.700 till our guest house in Leh (it’s a little on the higher side as Innova is a 7 seater car and it was very late in the night for such a small hill station).
Cell Phones continued to display NO COVERAGE. I finally got some water and Swiner filled his flask for later. We were on the way when it struck me that a call can be made from the cab driver’s phone and he was kind enough to lend it. Our trek operator was happy and relieved to hear from us and after I explained the situation he sent me the guest house details over an SMS. We both took a sigh of relief and all the positivity paid off. I was still pretty dizzy but was looking forward to the dinner which was being prepared for us separately. The driver was more confident now as he knew where exactly he had to take us.
Eighth Stop: Leh (Elevation – 3524 m)
5th July, 9:45 P.M.
Preet, our trek leader, was waiting for us in the garden near the main gate of the guest house (very cozy, beautifully located and packed with amenities). Swiner updated him about my condition and I was asked to drink water constantly. To make it my best friend. Then after introducing us to each member of the group/team Preet asked us to regroup at the garden once Swiner and I were done eating. We were dying to hear that (the “eating” part of it of course).
It is till date the best vegetarian food I have ever had in my life. Everything on the table was so delicious (especially the food :P). Even Swiner enjoyed it. Someone who cannot live without Non-vegetarian food. A person who looks at a domesticated cow on the Indian roads and exclaims – “What’s my breakfast doing here!?”.
We were very hungry for obvious reasons and the delectable food was taking away all the stress. All we needed was a good night’s rest and I would be able to pull right through. But again, that’s what I hoped. Things got different when we regrouped. Turned out I needed much more than just rest. And it wasn’t WiFi (though a lot of people back home were waiting to hear from me, probably getting sick from worrying but I had to lie about my condition anyway…)
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In the end… or just the beginning…
I can bet not many people will have such an adventurous story about their Delhi-Leh road trip. But reaching Leh was just the beginning of the Stok Kangri Trek, which was actually an Expedition in disguise!!