When speaking of the Leh-Manali-Highway, ‘highway’ gets a different, rather literal meaning: the almost 500 km road connecting Leh and Manali has an average elevation of more than 4000 m and crosses the supposedly second-highest road-pass in the world as well as three more close to 5000 m passes and one 4000 m pass.
The first pass for us to get across was already the highest one, 5318 m, and we reached it the second day after we left Leh. Fortunately, the thinner the air gets, the gentler the road’s gradient usually seems to get, resulting in very wide and never-ending switchbacks leading up to the pass. However, despite the gentle gradient, it finally took us five tough hours to overcome the last 1000 metres in height and 30 km in order to reach that pass. Hence, we ended up crawling up there with an average speed of fantastic 6 km/h.
Since the road is important to the military and thus build and maintained by them, an estimated 75% is paved. Yet, due to the bad road conditions at the remaining 25%, most likely on the ascents, and, of course, due to the altitude, the other close to 5000 m passes weren’t easy either. Every pass was a little struggle and the relief increased with every pass we got over.
Admittedly, especially compared to our first week in Zanskar, the scenery along the road wasn’t always interesting and very motivating. Pretty dry, dreary and dessert-like. Still, some rock formations, deep valleys, or the mere vastness impressed us nevertheless.
Furthermore, the altitude and almost hostile conditions probably account for the relative emptiness of this area. Apart from the shabby tents of the poor Nepali roadworkers – what shocked us repeatedly – there were just a few temporary ‘villages’ along the road. These, however, mainly consisted only of very simple huts or tents providing accommodation and food for tourists and others. The number of camps at some places, however, gave us an idea of how much tourists are obviously coming through there in summer, mainly Indians on motorbikes. Fortunately, we were there at the end of the season and, hence, shared the road only with a few motorbikes and trucks what increased the sensed remoteness of the whole road. Still, at regular intervals we passed these ‘villages’ and were able to fill our stomach with instant noodles, omelette, toast and tea. Our own food supplies remained almost untouched throughout the six days we spent on the road.
Happy and with little pride we finally reached the last pass and enjoyed the 2000-metre-descent back into the green valley of Manali. Although we were happy and relaxed, some of Hannes’ muscles didn’t agree and tensed up: for a moment Hannes was almost immobile due to a suddenly arosen back pain. It seemed to be impossible to set food on the bus we planed to take back to Delhi overnight. However, with some muscle relaxant and optimism things got better quickly and we finally returned to true India without problems.
Now, back in Delhi, we still have three days left to experience the real India with its ups and downs as I am going to tell with the next post soon.