Jispa to Leh - The Northen Himachal Section
This post follows on my description of the first leg of my jeep trip from Manali to Leh – the Himachal Pradesh section (Manali-to-Jispa.)
The second leg of the route, from Jispa to Leh, was even more spectacular and rewarding than the first, if that is at all possible. The winding road meandered along a lake and a river, and then climbed up and down the numerous mountain passes, some of which are the highest in the world. The Indus river, or her tributaries (rivers are goddesses in India), accompanied us for large sections of the road. Auspicious.
For the first two hours or so, we were still inside the jurisdiction of the state of Himachal Pradesh. There were pretty villages and greenery.
Himalayan villages are beautiful and clean. The vegetable gardens or wheat fields set on slopes and terraces are perfectly neat and compact. Every square meter of land in a Himalayan village has a purpose, and people’s time is dedicated to clear and necessary tasks, so they survive through the harshest winters. It is paramount to make the best out of the short summer season while the roads are still open…[ See my post on Likir village.][Sometimes I fantasize on spending a winter there or in the far Norwegian north. Wonder if I have what it takes…]
Here is a good article about the traditional agriculture in Ladakh. which applies of course also to northen Himachal.
Jispa to Leh - The Lake
At one point, by the border of Himachal with Ladakh, a beautiful pristine lake appeared in the barren moonscape. Bram and I were very excited and clicked all over the place. I was reminded of the North American lakes, which got me inspired and in awe on my trip in Canada and the Northeast USA. The Himalayan lake was different, though, because of the desert landscape.
Sheep and Trucks
Stuck by sheep
Huge herds of goats and sheep speckled the mountain sides, especially as the landscape was getting more barren. They sometimes blocked the road, streaming on both sides of vehicles, even crawling under the bellies of trucks…
Bram and I enthusiastically jumped out of the jeep to take pics and shoot videos, trying to outdo each other. Yair had two dead cameras, and Nikki, Bram’s girlfriend, was not so much into photography.
I am in love with Indian trucks. Apparently no two are the same; they each have a different design and color pattern. But they all say “Blow Horn” on the back bumper. The meaning is simple: when you overtake me, beep. On some hairy curves there are actual roadsigns ordering drivers to blow their horns. This is OK in the mountains, not so great in the cities, where the decibel levels are excessive.
Our man on the road
The road turned from asphalt to dirt to stones to potholes and back to asphalt at a dazzling speed. We “missed” an accident with a wayward motorcyclist by a few centimeters, but were saved by the amazing skill of our super-talented driver, Dave .
Jispa to Leh - Stuck Again
Stuck by a broken bridge
At one point, we got stuck again. There was repair work going on a broken bridge ahead of us. I used the stop to take out my flutes and started to play, to the amazement of the truck drivers and the old Tibetans who were stuck with us.
A small social group formed around me. An Austrian woman and her partner were among them. She immediately recognized me from the Vashisht hot spring two days ago, as the one who dared to dip her feet in the water… We talked about the real brave lady with the baby who actually immersed in this 50°C or so water. The Austrian joined me and sang along to “Blowing in the Wind”, gospels and Irish folk songs. Nikki also got ambitious, and tried, succeessfully, to get sounds out of my Indian flute. Not easy. I offered the recorder to an old Nepali man who was watching eagerly, but he declined shyly.
Eventually the bridge was fixed, using barrels as props. I was happy to see some 20 army trucks going over the bridge safely before us (see video above).
Dave, used to the system, cheerfully continued with his driving, and we were all full of admiration as always.
Jispa to Leh - The Ladakhi Desert
It’s a desert now…
The landscape got starker and drier fairly fast. We were moving from the green Himachal Pradesh into the high desert of Ladakh. Sprinklers replaced water canals at places.
The forces at play
Just as the majestic mountains keep rising and lifting with the collosal impact of two continenets colliding (the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate), the erosive powers of wind, water and ice also perform their inevitable dance on behalf of gravitation. The results are magnificent erosion fans as well as many other spectacular geo-morphological contours and bizzarre, surreal structures.
“Pillars”, alluvial fans, moorlands and painted desert
In particular, Bram got excited about “pillars”. At first, I did not understand what he was referring to. I am used to strange geographical /geological formations from the many deserts I have lived in and visited, but nonetheless he infected me with his enthusiasm.
We both shot picture after picture of those ”pillars” and other erosional phenomena on the banks of the river , which according to Google Maps was the famous Indus… At points, we saw baby grand canyons in the making.
Everything was a photographic bonanza. After all, there are multiple erosional factors at play here. Glaciers slide down, moving gravel, soil and boulders, or they thaw, creating waterfalls; spring snow melts and cascades down; water nestles in cracks, expanding as it freezes, breaking the rock overtime.
There were amazingly huge landslides and alluvial fans, sometimes beautifully colored.
In some places there were dykes and other intrusions, tilted layers indicating the powerful forces at play. Much of this reminded me of similar phenomena in the Sinai, the Syrian-African Rift and the Arava:
Some red colors were due to plants, similar in look to heather. The landscape even resembled the Irish Wicklow hills with mauve and greenish patches.
Later on, there were colorful sandstones and other rocks. They spanned the gamut from yellows, browns and reds to purples. Everybody was thrilled by the beauty.
It must be a dazzling experience to come from the flattest, greenest country in the world (Holland), where it rains continuously, to the desert at the roof of the world… You could tell by the excitmenet what was entirely new to each of us, and what we considered less sensational.
Jispa to Leh - Himalayan "Malls"
Toilet or else…
Army presence is ubiquitous. Otherwise, any human facility or presence is welcome in this sparesely-populated region.
When we crossed the border from Himachal to Ladakh, the cute villages seemed to disappear and be replaced by army barracks and Tibetan/Ladakhi outposts. Plastic bags of fritos and salted and sugared munchies were hanging in chains in front of small shops, seperated from each other by tearing lines. Older women were selling woven hats, scarves and shawls out of their homes, whose road-facing sections were remodelled as storefronts.
At one point before we reached the highest pass (see below), it was toilet time for me or else… Luckily, at one of these “Hill Stations” or “Himalayan Malls” as I called them, a nice Ladakhi woman let me use her toilet. She led me joyfully through her bedroom to a wonderful sparkling toilet and bathroom, western-style, which was also equipped with all the usual Indian contraptions of taps and buckets. The bedroom itself was filled with two huge double beds covered in very thick blankets…
After that I was capable of handling the three extra hours it took to get to Leh…
At the “mall”…
At another such post, where we stopped for lunch, I bought a cute woolen hat after long deliberation between the black-and-whites, colorfuls-but-small and colorfuls-and-big-enough-but-less-pretty. I eventually opted for a large and a bit-less-pretty one, letting comfort be the main determining factor. I remembered how tight my small Ecuadorian woolen hat was, which I ended up not using as much as I needed to…
We sat in a small cozy eatery for hungry travellers. To our frustration, Dave never sat with us at the table, but always dined alone. Maybe this is a common drivers’ practice. The Ladahki woman, who served us the Maggi (ready-made noodles, extemely popular in India), was offended when I thought she was Nepali. She also proudly declared being a Buddhist, to distinguish from Hindu or Muslim perhaps.
Human settlements and human contacts along the Jispa to Leh road are sporadic, sparse and precious.
As we moved on, it became clear that being a Buddhist is indeed something to be proud of – Leh was so far the cleaneset town I had seen in India. Complete with spic-and-span sidewalks, garbage bins and dump trucks proudly announcing their contribution to society and environment, Leh was in a different league from the common Indian cities. [See my post series: Point a Finger at Polluter – Who Cleans India?]
You can get some background about the origin of Ladakhi people, their culture, sports, arts and crafts, etc. at this link.
Jispa to Leh - The River
The river, apparently the Indus, or tributary, followed us along much of the way to Leh. In parts she sank underground, creating amazing abstract patterns of water, mud and gravel.
This is the crucial difference between the Sinai, Judean and Negev deserts with all their beauty – dykes, faults, colorful sandstones, bizarre erosive formations and contours – and the Himalayas. Precipitation at very high altitudes creates glaciers and snow patches. Those translate into beautiful fresh-water flows, like the Indus and tributaries, that eventually contribute to fertility way down the water basin. The only watery entity in close vicinity to the Negev and the Sinai is the beautiful salty Red Sea. Freshwater flows in our deserts can indeed be torrentous for a short while, but are ephemeral at best. Snow is a rare occurence (see my gallery, Snowy Edom Mountains). Glaciers are not part of our local geological history.
Jispa to Leh - Monuments to the Ancestors
Ireland in Ladakh
Later on I asked Dave to stop, but this time for an entirely different reason:
I saw a standing stone!!!
Curious standing stones and a grave on the road to Leh. According to Dave they are recent, but they remind me too much of similar structures in both the Negev and the Northern Isles, which are from the Neolithic, so I allow myself to contest his claim
Me and my ex-husband spent hours walking around the northern islands of Scotland and Ireland searching for standing stones and stone circles. I was astounded to see those here as well…
Washing my eyes, I asked Dave if these were indeed standing stones. He answered in the affirmative, but did not know much about them. He said they were erected by the Ladhaki people, but thought they were fairly recent, if not contemporary. If that is true, it is interesting in and of itself… There were also proper graves. Some were big; many were small.
The world is one
The world, apparently, has always used to connected. At various periods, similar basic tenets, ideas and concepts seem to have spanned vast geographical distances. Pyramids, standing stones, spirals, petroglyphs, pantheons, sacrifices are but few examples… Even in our Negev desert, the masseboths, studied by my friend, Dr. Uzi Avner, belong in the same family of the northern standing stones, and we even have our own megaliths in the Golan…
Something about stones makes people do certain things worldwide. Just the day before, the lady who posed on the rock and her friends erected a small “rujum”. Those rujums are piled up almost everywhere in world at high or otherwise interesting spots. [See another example in my post about Meat Cove, at the northern spot in Cape Breton, NS, Canada].
Jispa to Leh - The Passes
Map of the Ladakhi passes on the road to Leh.
So it was Rohtang Pass of 3890 m, then down, then up to Deepak Tal(3810 m), Zingzing bar (4270 m), Baralacha La (4890 m), and after another down and up eventually Lachuglang La (5079 m), the second highest mountain pass in the world, and then to the highest – Tanglang La (5328 m).
The meaning of a mountain pass in these parts is an actual road, accessible by vehicles. Obviously, people mountaineer by foot to much higher altitudes.
Two of the many passes we crossed that day
From the passes we could also see some of these higher, magnificent, peaks as well. There were always some taller summits, perhaps in the 6000 m cagetory, towering above and beyond. There were glaciers at the tops, which sometimes were found even much lower. In one case, a glacier almost touched down to the river level…
One of these passes was reached after 21 super curves, some of which quite hairy to drive. Amazingly, people were doing this climb by bicycle. It was nice to see that they were not necessrily Europeans. Locals also participated in these sports. Some women were also pedaling along… I heard that an Indian girl, 11 years old, cycled the entire climb side-by-side with her dad…
Twenty one turns and twists on this road, leading to one of these awesome high passes shown on the map above, but alas, I can’t remember which. Some amazing humans climb this on foot or by bikes, including an 11-year old Indian girl!
Dave took all the curves expertly, dexterously and calmly.
As we arrived at Tanglang La, the highest motorized road in the world, it got colder and every venture out of the car proved to be a much bigger ordeal than normal… It must be true that the ghosts of the mountains take the oxygen away…☺
All the passes are literally covered by Buddhist colorful flags with prayers written over them.
Eventually, as it always does, the night descended over the Himalayas:
Then we were stopped at a checkpoint. Leh was ahead.
I postpone writing about wonderful Leh and vicinities for another post(s), but will mention here that even in the dark I could see it was the cleanest Indian town I have seen so far. The sidewalks were spic-and-span; the shop and home owners must have cleaned the sidewalks in front of their buildings. The city as a whole was very well maintained.
The area around Leh was replete with army bases, military checkpoints and roadblocks. On the other end, there was also a plethora of Buddhist enigmatic structures. At first those seemed to me very strange, but later I learned a bit more about them and about Buddhist lay culture generally.
As so often happens in traveling, once we entered Leh, our traveling “gang” disintegrated. Bram and Nikki headed for a place they reserved in advance. Yair was looking for a cheapie Israeli hangout, and I asked Dave to drop me at the Peace Guesthouse, an excellent choice recommended by a German girl I met in Bhagsu. This cozy accomodation surpassed all my expectations, as I will elaborate on in an upcoming post about Leh.
These enigmatic stuctures, called Mani or Chortens, enclose sacred scriptures and objects. Buddhist devotees circumambulate them as a spiritual practice.