Monday, April 11, 2016

24 August 2015 – Leh to Manali - Day 4

I left the Camp before sunrise with the idea of getting to Manali as early as possible. I reached Upshi within 30 minuutes with Shey and Thikseygompas on the way. I found vehicles queued up at the Upshi check post and drivers complained that the guard was still asleep! I went into one of the rooms attached to the check post and was told by a bleary eyed person that he was not the one to open the post.  Then I went into the next room and woke up the guard, who I expected to resist. Instead he looked a bit guilty and was ready to sign whatever papers I pushed under his nose. He also shouted out aloud to someone to raise the check post barrier. With the log sheet entered and attested I took to the road again. From Upshi to Sarchu mobile phone connection is not available. The Leh-Manali route is open only for less than five months in the year between May and October due to heavy snowfall. The highway is maintained exclusively by the Border Roads Organisation and I could appreciate the improvement in road condition between Leh and Pang, which was in miserable condition in 2012.

The excellent landscape, albeit dry, of stark mountains, rock formations and nature’s art is a visual delight from Upshi to Pang. The road upto Pang was quite good and almost fully paved or bituminised. The average altitude on the Leh – Manali route is 4000 metres with Tanglang La at 5328 metres. It is considered the second highest motorable Pass in the world after Khardung La. While approaching the Pass I could feel a definite dip in temperature and a couple of kilometres up the ascent I saw thin snowflakes wafting in the rare air. Then came into view freshly snowed down mountain slopes. Gradually the snowfall became heavier and thicker; the mountain slopes seemed to have received heavy snowfall in the past few hours. I was alone on the road with no sight of any other vehicle or human habitation. Thick snow started gathering on the side of the windshield where the wipers deposited it and formed hard ice. It had become awfully cold and dry. The car began to show signs of altitude – it slowed down and lost traction. The oxygen needed to burn the fuel was in short supply. I remembered the additive that Atulbhai had given me in Surat to keep the diesel fuel from freezing. Being certain that I would not run into that kind of weather I had not used it while tanking up in Leh. When I experienced a few ‘misses’ from the engine I feared the worst. The engine would sputter and die. I would be left on the Pass with snowfall becoming heavier by the minute. I had the wherewithal to counter the weather condition

and I had not used it. Despite all this, apprehension did not give way to panic. Instead I sought refuge in prayer. Then, at a distance, I saw two supply trucks slowly making their way to the crest of the Pass, as if in response to my appeals to HIM. I ‘sped’ as fast as the condition permitted to overtake the supply trucks. I managed that and heaved sighs of great relief; even if the car stopped I would be able to get her towed by one of the trucks. I was grateful to my uncle GK Abraham who insists that I carry his tow rope whenever I set out on an expedition. The worst never came to pass and slowly I made haste to the crest of the Pass and, without stopping – for fear of the engine not restarting was still very much alive - I went downhill and on towards Pang.

The More plains starts almost as the Pass ends. It is a stretch of almost 35 km with awesome mountain views on both sides of the two lane highway. From a distance I spied a chai shop where a few bikes and a car were parked with people leisurely sipping a hot cup of tea. I was tempted to stop and recharge, especially after the Tanglang La experience. But I was keener on getting to Manali in quick time and hence, gave the chai shop a skip. In a few minutes I saw a
Gujarat registration car in hot pursuit of the Ford Endeavour. The driver and the lone passenger in the car, I could make out, were youngsters. A couple of times they overtook me and then hung back to permit me to overtake them! I found that strange, to say the least. They later requested me to stop for a few minutes and identified themselves as Ganesh from Palghatand Vishnu from Chennai. They were working for L&T in Surat. They had followed the London drive, noticed the decals of the car as I drove past the chai shop and decided to give chase! They were on a Ladakh trip. We spoke about the expeditions for a while and exchanged contacts before continuing our journey.

The road from Pang turned out to be an apology up to Rohtang Pass; at many places roads did not exist in that description. But the worst thing is that the BRO is guilty of not using safety and road diversion signs. Despite the condition of the road the enthusiasm of cyclists and bikers were almost infectious.

Finally the Leh to Manali stretch was done, 470 km in 14 hours 45 minutes. I had lost two hours en route due to road repair works. During one such stoppage I met Sigy from Australia who was on a bike ride from Leh to Delhi. He agreed to affix the sticker on J&K, on the route map on the car, signifying that the first of the states on the Trans Himalayan Expedition was done.

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