Ever wonder what’s the best way to cure the hiking blues after finishing an amazing trek? Starting another one, of course!
With so many incredible hiking destinations to choose from in the India Himalayas, we had to take advantage of being halfway around the world and do another trek in this fabulous alpine locale before heading back to Chicago. So, after completing the Nanda Devi Alpine trek, we planned to meet up with friends in Ladakh, a region in the far northern India known as the “roof of the world.”
Ladakh has been on our hiking radar ever since 2011 when we trekked the Annapurna Circuit in nearby Nepal. Lately, we have been bombarded with photos, articles and blog posts suggesting just how incredible this area is. We were beyond excited to be heading to this hikers’ Shangri-La where we had signed on to do a 12-day hike combining the popular Markha Valley trek with a summit attempt of 20,187 foot Stok Kangri.
Before we tell you all the details about our amazing time in Ladakh, we should tell you about the journey to get there, because that turned out to be quite an experience, too.
An Unexpected Adventure
You see, after finishing Nanda Devi, we had a “gap week” of seven days before starting our next trek, and we wanted to do something memorable with it. So we thought it might be fun to drive between Joshimath, where we finished our last trek, to Leh, the base town for our next trek, and get a real sense of the Indian landscape—an easy thing to say, but, as it turned out, a much harder thing to accomplish.
Although it is only 1250 kilometers by road from Joshimath to Leh, the terrain is among the most rugged in the world. From the twisting river-carved gorges of Uttarakhand’s Himalayas down to the dry, dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh, through the stunning snow-capped peaks of Himachal Pradesh and then back up again to the stark, barren landscape and high mountain passes of India’s ‘Little Tibet,’ the journey is a wild roller coaster ride.
Our plan was to take four days to make the epic drive, with a brief stop to check out the popular resort mountain town of Manali. From there we would embark on the infamous 2-day drive on the Leh-Manali Highway, which crosses several mountain passes above 5000 meters and has an average elevation of more than 4000 meters along its treacherous path. Once in Leh, we would meet up with our hiking friends, Rob and Amy, and spend two relaxing days recovering from the road and visiting the abundant Buddhist monasteries that grace the area before hitting the trail.
The Best-Laid Plans
Well, you know how the saying goes about those, right? Here is an account of all the craziness that went down on the road between Joshimath and Leh.
First up, Matt developed a curious “issue” that required medical attention. Just as we were packing up our gear at the very last campsite at the end of the Nanda Devi trek, Matt felt a “pop” as he was stuffing clothes into his bag. When he pulled his hand out, the last digit on the ring finger of his right hand was dangling painlessly but could not be straightened. A makeshift splint fixed it temporarily, but his dangling digit sent us on a wild goose chase trying to find a doctor in this remote part of India who could diagnose the problem and give good advice as to how best to treat it.
After several false starts, we found a doctor at a private clinic in Dehra Dun who x-rayed the finger and determined that Matt had likely popped a tendon, which he could either splint externally for 6 more weeks or splint internally by inserting two pins in a simple outpatient surgery. What would you do?!
So three hours later (the doctor only does surgeries after lunch!), Matt checked into the hospital. A nurse visited the room and gave me a shopping list of medical supplies the doctor would need for the surgery: syringes, gloves, the local anesthetic, etc. I ran to the on-site pharmacy and came back with a paper bag filled with all of the goods. I kid you not!
Shortly later, Matt went “under the knife” and had his finger pinned. By 6 pm, we were back on the road and on our way to Manali. Turns out medical care in India is super cheap, fairly quick and reasonably modern (if you overlook the pigeon perched in the rafters of the clinic’s atrium!). The entire procedure, supplies and all, cost under $300 US. Where else could you get same-day service at bargain prices?!?!
“I Know a Great Short Cut…”
Having lost most of the travel day, we were determined to hit the road in the early evening and get as far as we could to make up for the lost time. As we set off into parts unknown with the sunlight fading to darkness, we were feeling like we had made it past the worst and could now get back on track. That is, until our driver pulled over for a chai, asked for directions and was convinced to take a short cut that would “save us hours.”
It turns out Indians are not particularly keen on using maps, and our driver had no idea where he was going. Around midnight he finally gave up and stopped driving for the night. We were eager to find out where we were exactly but were dismayed to discover that we had ended up in Haryana.
Never heard of Haryana? Well neither had we, and the ramshackle town where we spent the night didn’t show up anywhere on our tiny Lonely Planet map of Uttar Pradesh. Turns out Haryana is NOT located along our intended northerly route but rather in the next state heading south. As in the complete wrong direction! Our 3 hour “short cut” had now taken us 5 hours out of the way. Oh well, this is India. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.
The next day we made tracks to get to Manali, but it took all day to reach the popular resort town. As we pulled in on a Sunday evening, the streets were packed with vacationing Indians. The town resembled a carnival more than the pleasant mountain retreat we had envisioned. Still, we managed to locate a bar with pizza, cold beer and the World Cup on TV. It was exactly what we needed to take our minds off the road behind…and the road ahead!
The Leh-Manali Highway
The next morning we were transferred to a new driver, Manu, who was more familiar with the Leh-Manali Highway and frequently made the tough 2-day journey. As we left Manali and ascended out of the Kullu Valley, we were treated to our first glimpses of the stunning alpine scenery that would grace our journey for the next two days.
A few miles before reaching the top of the pass, we ran into a huge traffic jam of the sort you would only find in India. The road was reduced to a single lane as folks honked and barged their way forward slowly, occasionally giving way to huge lorries, cars and motorcycles attempting to do the same in the opposite direction. Opportunistic vendors took advantage and hawked everything from hot chai and coffee to chapati and chaat to the increasingly frustrated motorists.
Some passengers got out of their car to stroll, take pictures and catch up on the latest gossip, while others took advantage of the opportunity to play in the snow fields on the side of the road.
As we finally approached the source of the traffic jam, we discovered that a melting glacier had washed out the road at a tight bend, causing every vehicle to proceed cautiously through the danger zone while a crew tried to make repairs to the road.
Once past, we turned the corner into a scene that is hard to describe. We’ll just call it “Winter Wonderland,” but, truthfully, it felt like it was something straight out of The Twilight Zone.
On the way out of Manali we had seen countless roadside stalls displaying ‘80s-era full-body ski suits, pastel colors and all! We thought it was rather peculiar, especially since it really wasn’t that cold, and we wondered what the deal was.
As we drove through “Winter Wonderland,” we discovered a tiny, super-crowded, winter-themed amusement park complete with snowmobile rides, yak rides, sledding and skiing, the perfect opportunity to don those freshly purchased 80s snowsuits. Most folks were standing in long lines waiting for their chance to play in the snow while others were lounging in plastic chairs, drinking chai and chatting amiably. The whole scene was surreal. We scratched our heads and kept moving.
The rest of the journey to Leh found us on mostly gravel roads winding our way up switchbacks to high mountain passes with permanent snowfields. The terrain grew increasingly stark as we left the lush green landscape of Uttarakhand far behind and headed into the arid Himalayan foothills leading into Ladakh.
The Leh-Manali Highway is only open for about four months each year when the road is free of snow. From time to time we had to “ford” streams of glacial melt water flowing right over the road.
In such harsh conditions it’s no surprise the road needs constant maintenance. We frequently passed crews of seasonal Nepali workers repairing the road without the aid of modern machinery, literally breaking up rocks with small hammers to provide gravel for the construction. Once in a while on some crazy ascent we would spot a lorry broken down or, worse yet, the burned out shell of a car or truck that had tumbled over the edge to an unpleasant end.
With the rough road conditions and the occasional goat/sheep traffic jam, things were pretty slow going.
If you look closely in the photo above, you’ll notice a sign indicating the load class of the bridge. If you’re like us, we, too, were a little surprised that a bridge appearing to be paved with tar paper could support a load of 9 tons. But if it could handle a herd of wandering sheep and goats, a small passenger car shouldn’t be any problem, right?
Sometimes, we even had to step in to lend a hand when necessary to keep things moving along.
A Rest Stop in Sarchu
With road conditions like that, we felt extremely fortunate, after a long day of driving, to pull into Sarchu, an overnight camp that represented the halfway point of the journey. Sarchu is a semi-permanent camp comprised of a large dining tent and a few dozen private, canvas-sided sleeping tents with real beds and an adjoining bathroom with a dirt floor and a flush toilet that was reminiscent of some of the safari tents we have stayed in when traveling in Africa. At this point in the journey, we would have been happy sleeping anywhere, but Sarchu seemed pretty luxurious for being in the middle of nowhere at 14,070 feet.
At any rate, the stop gave us a chance to stretch our legs and unscramble our brains after a good jostling on Day 1. We woke up refreshed and, after our morning chai, ready to complete the trip to Leh.
Motorcycles, Monks and Mountain Passes…Oh, My!
Day 2 resembled something out of “The Motorcycle Diaries.” We thought we were tough for just being passengers on this crazy ride, so we were amazed by the bands of motorcyclists we saw braving these rough roads on only two wheels! We even saw a bad-ass group of four women from England making the journey. We were duly impressed.
Every so often we had to stop at various checkpoints to pay a road tax. These stops afforded us an opportunity to stretch the legs, fill our bellies with delicious momos (Tibetan dumplings), and take in the culture of these remote road stops.
As we got closer to Leh we noticed van loads of Buddhist monks and nuns, dressed in their characteristic crimson and saffron robes, all headed in the same direction. When one group of nuns asked us to take their picture, they inquired if we were heading to the Kalachakra, the annual 2-week teach-in that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, organizes each summer. As it turned out, this year’s Kalachakra was being held in Leh at nearly the same time that we would be trekking in Ladakh. Had we known we could have tried to secure tickets to one of the public teachings.
Day 2 featured several high mountain passes, each more beautiful than the next.
The road up to Taglang La, which at 5328 meters is the second highest motor-able pass in the world, was especially memorable with its 22 long, looping switchbacks to finally reach the top.
Lightning Really Does Strike Twice!
Unfortunately, as we climbed higher on the Leh-Manali Highway, Alison began to notice increasing pain in one tooth, and we cringed at the thought of having to deal with yet another medical issue. We hoped the pain would subside once we arrived in Leh and had a chance to acclimatize to the altitude. Sadly, this was not the case.
When we reached Leh, dusty and weary from the road, and pulled into our hotel compound, we stepped out of the car to find our friends, Rob and Amy from Colorado, chilling out in the courtyard and waiting for us. What a sight for sore eyes (and teeth) they were! We showered up and joined them for a beer in the garden as we traded stories and began to plan for our trek.
We spent the next couple of days touring Leh and the surrounding countryside surrounding the Indus Valley, visiting several famous Buddhist monasteries and enjoying the increasing excitement of pilgrims who had found their way to this important gathering.
Seeing so many Buddhists gathering in one place lent a certain charm and vitality to Leh; at each of the temples we visited, the monks were making special preparations as visitors showed up in droves to offer prayers and donations of cash and food items to each incarnation of the Buddha. We felt very lucky to be there at such a special occasion.
While in Leh, we introduced Rob and Amy to fresh lassis made from sweetened curd as well as the joys of a trip to an Indian barber shop—bonus head massages included!
But the lingering question on our minds was what to do about Alison’s toothache which wasn’t getting any better and now seemed to be progressing into a swollen jaw. We were determined to find a doctor or a dentist who could diagnose the problem and give us sound advice on what to do. We hoped the issue would subside with medicine and that we could proceed with our trek as planned.
A Sudden Change of Plans
Finding a dentist in Leh turned out to be challenging. We first went to the national clinic, then to a private dentist without much success. After consulting with dentists further afield in Dehra Dun, Mumbai and Chicago (thank goodness for Facebook, Skype and wifi!) we were assured that the pharmacist could supply us with antibiotics and painkillers sufficient to continue safely on the trek. But even with two days on Amoxycillin, the swelling in Alison’s jaw hadn’t subsided, and it was still making us nervous.
At 9 p.m. on the night before our departure, we met with our outfitter and decided as a group to change our trekking route so that we would be closer to “civilization” if an emergency evacuation were necessary.
The next morning, as a measure of precaution, we visited the hospital one more time. A kind doctor ushered us past the waiting patients, quickly x-rayed Alison’s tooth, and determined conclusively that the pain was caused by an abscess. He said she would need a root canal, but that it could wait until after the trek.
Thank goodness, because even though we totally trusted the dentist’s medical opinion, we weren’t entirely confident about the medical facilities in Ladakh. The technician who took the x-ray of Alison’s tooth hand-developed it, needing an assist from Matt to seal the light out of the darkroom changing bag. And what’s up with those latex gloves drying on the line?
“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…You Go Trekking!”
“Don’t worry. Just give the medicine a few days to take effect,” we were told. Good words to hear, harder to absorb. But trek we did. With that assurance we set off on Trek 2 into the heart of the Stok Kangri region. Stay tuned for our next post on the excellent trekking on offer in beautiful Ladakh.