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India

Driving to the Top of the World

At the top of the world

Our two-day journey into Indian Tibet began, sleepily, on an overcast and drizzly morning in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. We intended to drive the Manali-Leh highway across the Himalayas and through some of the highest mountain passes on Earth. Our driver, Dawa, picked us up at our hostel, and our group of four climbed into his car and began on our way. The ubiquitous concrete buildings with painted shop shutters quickly disappeared and were replaced by rugged hills, coniferous trees and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls. In this part of India you are never too far away from dramatic scenery.

After a few hours on the road we stopped for a typical roadside breakfast: spicy dosas, an overly salty omelette and glasses of coffee with a layer of film, a veritable 'breakfast of champions'! The first leg of the journey was to take around ten hours, so we were back in the car before we had chance to digest our meals. As the ascent continued, Dawa began playing his Tibetan mantra CD. The music comprised of one song which was about an hour long and repeated the same prayer over and over. It was authentic to the region so I didn’t mind listening to it. A few yawns escaped me but I thought nothing of it, blaming it on the mantra, the swaying car, the mountain roads and a belly full of food.

The scenery changed frequently. As we climbed, there were fewer trees and more boulders and rocks. The road narrowed and began to flirt with the edge of the mountain. To one side of the car was a rock wall and to the other, a sheer drop. For the first time in India we all fastened our seatbelts. Overcast drizzle matured into rain and thick fog, which the car’s headlights struggled to penetrate. With no tree cover, the rain fell with impunity and quickly flooded the road. The surface was slick with mud and puddled water, not an optimum combination on this already-dangerous road.

Dawa was in total control, but I held my breath every time the front of the car pointed towards the cliff edge. Our tedious crawl to the summit was hampered by traffic. Inevitably, it was always a Tata tipper truck that needed to pass us. As vehicles squeeze past each other wheels groan in the search for traction and rocks slide off the cliff edge. I was finding it hard to appreciate the bright paintwork and gentle humour painted onto each one of the trucks. Looking round in the car everyone else was equally pensive and I realized the conversation had died out some time before.

When the path ahead was clear of traffic we were able to continue up the mountain. The price of passage was the occasional sideways slide or the back wheels deciding they wanted to go in a direction different than that of the front of the car. Dawa’s calmness was reassuring, but I still held on to the door handle with the belief that it just might save me if we toppled off the edge.

Mercifully, the road flattened out and we could see the famed Rohtang Pass ahead of us. We all applauded with cheer and relief, and Dawa replied with a shy smile. At the summit of the pass, we raced out of the car for photographs. However, after a few shots I realised I could see my breath and the rain was soaking through my jacket. I was a little underdressed for the altitude of 3,978 metres.

After a morning of constant stimulation I was feeling tired. The scenery was becoming familiar and the early start to the morning seemed to have worn me out. On came the mantra CD and the car heater, and I gave in to a little nap.

We drove into the Tibetan village of Keylong to stop for food. We found ourselves a little Tibetan restaurant and ordered tea, hot and sour soup and plenty of momos, or delicately steamed dumplings filled with vegetables and meat. The soup wasn’t amazing but the momos were little packets of heaven.

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Tibetans settled in Keylong after being exiled from their own country. The whole area is inaccessible during the winter months due to the heavy snowfall and impenetrable mountains. The settlement in Keylong remained undiscovered by the Indian authorities until border disputes with Pakistan forced the Border Roads Organisation to build roads and open up access across the mountain range. These so called ‘Mountain Tamers’ have done a first class job in opening up the whole region and it is becoming increasing popular with tourists during the summer season.

On the road the scenery had changed again. The farms could have been mistaken for the English countryside with their sheep and dry stone walls. Around 5:00 in the evening, we reached the village of Jispa, where we would stay for the night. We were travelling in the off-season and the village was virtually deserted. Thankfully Dawa knew where to find the hotel staff and they opened up to let us in. I’m sure the hotel is suitable during the summer, but the temperature dropped close to zero during the night and the lack of hot water and lighting in my room was a real disappointment. The remaining leg of our journey would begin at five in the morning, so we had an early night. I got into my dashing Banana Man pyjamas, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, two more quilts and fell asleep before I could even begin to process the amazing scenery we’d witnessed that day.Awe inspiring scenery

Punctual as ever, my alarm disturbed my sleep with the call to get moving. I wriggled free an arm from my quilted cocoon to gauge the temperature. It was freezing. And it was still pitch black outside. By the time I had built up the courage to step into the cold air, I only had ten minutes left before we departed. I put on my clothes over my pyjamas because it was too cold to completely undress; I quickly cleaned my teeth and made a dash for the warm car.

The journey continued across mountains and valleys and slowly the sunlight revealed an alien, lunar landscape. All vegetation had disappeared and the rocks had a rusted quality to them in the early morning light. A couple of hours later, we turned a corner to find the scenery open up and reveal an amazing skyline. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us and clouds teased the summits and hugged the valleys. The sun climbed further, the clouds evaporated and the grey sky melted into a gorgeous blue. I began to really wake up as I took in the awe-inspiring scenery. 

We reached the Suraj-Vishaal Taal (glacial lake) and even Dawa, who has surely seen this sight a number of times, got his phone out to take pictures. We were lucky to have such open skies and undisturbed snow cover. The lake was crystal clear. There wasn’t a single ripple and the reflected sky beneath us was as vivid as that above. My friend set up his tripod to take a few decent pictures and I ran around with my compact snapping everything I could see. We were all dumbfounded. With frozen fingers I built my own little stone monument to mark my moment there. I sat back, soaked in the scenery and felt thankful for my pyjama under-layer.

A short drive away was the Baralacha La pass at 4,890 metres above sea level. We quickly conquered the pass but I could feel the tiredness coming back and taking over. I closed my eyes for a few moments, only to open them a few hours later and find us pulling up to Bharatpur truck stop in the midday sun. I barely had the energy to climb out of the car. I thought I was just tired from being in a car for so long, but my friends had noticed my slumberous behaviour and were anxious; at this height, altitude sickness is a real concern. I am reasonably fit but there is nothing in the UK to prepare you for the altitudes of the Himalayas.

Everyone told me to eat often and drink plenty of water. While Dawa took our passports to the latest checkpoint, I slouched in a white patio chair at a tea shop and blankly stared at the mountains. I really wanted sleep. Eventually, though, my bladder prodded me to move and like a drunkard, I ambled to a small corrugated iron arrangement with a hole in the ground. I looked down at this ‘toilet’ and the stench slapped my across the face like the most malevolent of smelling salts. It was pretty disgusting, but I was at least alert again. 

We were happy to settle down and discuss what we'd just experienced: fear, awe, sickness and the most amazing scenery on the planet.


The journey continued throughout the day. We stopped at several truck stops and had tea in the parachute tents. Snow-capped mountains gave way to huge plains and then transformed into the most ridiculously huge valleys. The scale of things was incredible. In between bouts of altitude-induced sleep, I medicated myself on bottled water and chocolate bars. To be honest, as illnesses go I’ve suffered worse.

In the afternoon we reached the town of Upshi, Jammu and Kashmir, which had the last checkpoint before Leh. Our Himachal Pradesh car license plates didn’t impress the checkpoints patrollers here and we had to pay their ‘taxes’ on three separate occasions. We’d been in the car constantly for two long days and were all pretty exhausted and grumpy by this point. Except for Dawa, for him this was all in a day’s work and he looked as fresh as a daisy.

As we approached Leh the scenery changed for a final time. Leh, once the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, sits in a sandy, desert-like plateau and is unsurprisingly surrounded by majestic, snow-capped peaks. I was surprised to find how populated Leh was [ed. nearly 30,000]. After two days of sparse villages and temporary trucks stops, we’d finally arrived in a bustling Indian town with all the usual trappings: traffic, tourists, soldiers and plenty of cows in the road. Leh is home to a large Tibetan population, and is modelled upon their true home of Lhasa. Our journey was over but the fun was only just beginning. White water rafting, mountain biking, trekking – it’s all available here. However at that moment we were happy to settle down to a welcome meal at the Wonderland restaurant and began to discuss what we’d just experienced: fear, awe, sickness and the most amazing scenery on the planet.

About the Author

Paul Robinson used to think his home in Manchester, UK was the centre of the Universe. That was until he had a nosey around a few other countries, however. Now, despite all efforts, you can't shut him up about all things Asian. You can read his ramblings here: http://worldthefirsttime.blogspot.com/

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 Full name: Republic of India

 Population: 1.2 billion (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: New Delhi

 Largest city: Urban Mumbai (by population)

 Area: 3.287 million sq.km. (1.27 million sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Hindi, English and 14  other Official Languages

 Major religions: Hindu, Muslim, Christian,  Sikh, Other

 Monetary unit: Rupee

 GDP per capita: US $3,700

 Internet domain: .in

 International dialling code: +91

 Source: CIA World Factbook