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HIMALAYAN ODYSSEY

In the Himalayan region, once the Central Asian trade route, Achal Dhruva journeys from Manali to Leh through a land of abrupt changes

Our very own Grand Canyon just after Baralacha-la pass

When I first heard about taking a trip in Himalayan India, I was shocked - the echoes of Operation Vijay (Kargil War) were still resonating in the air. For breaking into the swing of the mountain road, the Manali to Leh (Ladakh) road is, undoubtedly, the mother of all drives. A little over 50 years ago, the Central Asian trade route closed for good. Fortunately, the remoteness of that distinct route has enabled its flavour to continue even now. And nowhere is it as redolent of past mystique as the Manali-Leh road.

A dream run, the 473 km road snaking up four passes and traversing through a desolate, stark lunar landscape, offers the ultimate man-machine challenge. Landscape and lifestyle take on a dramatically different meaning. Intrigued, I took up the challenge and embarked (along with two friends, Ernest and Robbie) upon a journey that was to become the most memorable trip of my life. Open barely three months of the year (mid-June to early October) the Manali-Leh route is the only other overland approach into Ladakh and more rugged than the main approach from the Kashmir valley passing through Kargil.

Panoramic vistas en route to Leh

Leaving behind the fleshpots of Manali, the top road rises, gently at first, along the Beas. Barely 54 km on, it spirals up the Rohtang Pass (13,050 feet) to the celebrated threshold of the Lahaul valley. The first leg up to Rohtang pass is like travelling through a picture postcard. River Beas keeps company for about 15 km, doing a swirling disappearing act down a narrow chasm outside Kothi village at the foot of Rohtang pass. Kothi offers amazing views of the mountains and a major tourist attraction, the breathtaking cascades of the Rahlla Falls, only 4 km away. Climbing higher and higher weaving in and out of clouds, we reached our first halt - Mirahi, a highway settlement of a few tents and shops. A hot cup of tea never felt better as despite the sunlight it was quite chilly, after all we had touched 10,000 feet!

Rahalla falls

The climb from Mirahi to Rohtang is steep, a series of never-ending twist and all of a sudden, we were at Rohtang and as we sped thru to the other side I got a great shock. The silence was absolute and we were alone - a side of India totally unexpected. The vista in front was a total contrast to the one we had just left behind. A gallery of towering snow capped mountains, absolutely barren, different shades of brown, yellow and gray. This grandstand vista was the classic introduction to the mountain desert.

Forces of nature at work between the Baralacha-la and Tanglang-la passes

The first signs of settlement on the other side of Rohtang is Gramphu village, a cluster of few huts halfway down into the valley. Its like an oasis with patches of grass and a wonderful waterfall. From Gramphu to village Sishu in the valley is a wonderful trek of about 20 km. It was a tempting first night’s halt at Keylong, the last major town of Himachal. Keylong is spread on the mountain slope, the main square quite a distance below the highway.

Army check-post before Tanglang-la pass

Our first halt the next day was Darcha, on the banks of river Bhaga, yet another highway stop of few tents and shops just as dawn was breaking. Darcha is a starting point for treks ranging from 5-15 days in the Zanskar valley. Baralacha-la (4,892 m/ 16,050 feet) the second pass of the drive is best remembered for the mind-blowing panoramic views - one of the world’s grandest mountain settings - a sea of snow capped mountain peaks all around. This pass onwards the landscape turns positively lunar, dusty plains scattered with boulders stretch into the distance with an occasional patch of pasture and an army check post. Every feature in this region, particularly its rarefied air and snowy summits, impart a timelessness to the route.

We were totally shaken and stirred by the time we arrived at Pang, as after Baralacha-la, we also negotiated Lungalacha-la (5,059 m/16,600 feet). Pang, a seasonal collection of tents, is a nowhere land kind of settlement serving piping hot meals to weary travellers.

Desertscape before Tanglang-la pass

From Pang, we were on a level playing field and had respite from the twist and turns until the last pass Tanglang-la (5,325 m/17,469 feet). Few places match the colossal images of the Lungalacha-la and Tanglang-la passes cutting thru the Zanskar range. There is nothing except rock, sand, rolling hills and broad plains scoured by dust devils. The chilling height of Tanglang-la is the highlight of the entire journey. Icicles as long as swords hanging from the cliff face in the shade are a mesmerising sight while crossing the pass. The road after crossing Rumtse village follows Gya River down to the Indus at Upshi, the last check-post before Leh. At this point, the dramatic appearance of the Indus reveals its timeless power as road and river race for the final 50 km to Leh. It was 9:00 pm when we finally reached Leh - the ethnocultural cauldron that embodies the true spirit of the world’s highest crossroads. Driving through the dark deserted streets, I reminisced my most amazing journey through kaleidoscopic vistas.

High On The Himalayas

Travelling through the spectacular locales of Ladakh and Bhutan, Reema Sisodia experiences a new high as she acquaints herself with these exotic and mystical regions with the Far Horizon team

A Land Like No Other

Let me share a recipe for an exotic getaway with you. Take the month of July, add the rain-shadow region of breathtaking Ladakh and complete it with a travel experience with Far Horizon, the result is nothing short of a perfect holiday. It all began in the month of July, when I, along with four friends, boarded the 06:30 am flight leaving the capital, which transported me straight into the thick of action - Leh, approximately 11,000 feet above sea level. The flight itself was an experience. Our tour leader Davinder mentioned, “The Delhi-Leh sector is one of the three most spectacular air routes, over the Himalayan range, the other two being Kathmandu-Tibet and Kathmandu-Bhutan.” Flying over the Pir Panjal, Zanskar and Nun Kun mountains of Kashmir, my seven-day experience in the terrains of Ladakh began exactly at 7:40 am.

Maitreya Buddha in Thiksey Monastery Ladakh,

Hopping into the jeeps, which took us straight to our temporary abodes, it was a day meant for total acclimatisation. Plenty of water, light lunch, a casual stroll in the Leh market, followed by a trip to Sankara Gompa. His experienced words, “Take it easy guys, lots of action yet to come with every passing day. If you push yourself too much, you will push yourself out of a holiday.” And I must say, he was so true. A new experience, a new vision unfolded everyday, from the exciting tours through the streets and settlements of Leh, to the breathtaking views of the sunset from the Shanti Stupa, from the visit to the Stok Palace to sipping the traditional Gurgur Chai (made of barley) in the Tibetan village, every experience was unique. Remember to pick up some interesting Tibetan silver jewellery and teak handicrafts at the villages and in Leh. The following day, we took a trip right into the heart and culture of Ladakh, to inimitable places like Likir, Lamawiu and Alchi.

Lamayaru Ladakh

With every passing day, we picked up pace, with the highlight being our two night stay at the base camp at Tso Morari Lake. Reaching destination Tso Morari was a visual treat, driving along side the river Indus, stopping at the beautiful Thikse Monastery, passing through Mahe, the brigade head of the Indian army, and experiencing the splendid flora and fauna of the region. From our camp, perfectly blending convenience and comfort, we explored the region and discovered the various facets of nature in quick succession.

The ultimate finale of our skillfully-planned holiday ended in a spiritual fashion. We were fortunate to witness the Hemis festival unique to the region held for just two days in July. We offered Khatak (silk scarves) at the monastery, which is believed to bring good luck and fortune. With memories of this everlasting experience lingering on, we left the Hemis monastery to set out on our journey back to metropolitan musings.

Experience The Last Himalayan Kingdom
April and its spring time in both India and Bhutan. But for Bhutan, the month of April means more than just spring, it is time for their most spectacular festival - Tsceshu in Paro. Having pre-planned to visit Bhutan during this unique festival, I boarded Bhutan’ national carrier, Druk Air, with the Far Horizon group. Flying over Kathmandu, we were fortunate to view the breathtaking aerial splendours of the Himalayan peaks of Kanchanjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and the mighty Everest. As the plane descended at Paro airport, we saw the holiest mountain of Bhutan, Chomalhari. This was truly the grand finale to my 2 hour, 45 minutes flight via Kathmandu. Clearing the basic formalities at the airport, we joined the Explore Bhutan expedition.

Post-lunch at Druk Hotel, we drove through Paro town, which is only a half kilometre street with houses and shops on either side. Crossing rivers and valleys, we reached Ta-Dzong, formerly a watch-tower, now a national museum housing some of the best paintings and artefacts of the region. An adventurous lot that we were, we decided to trek back to get a closer feel of the landscape. Reaching Druk by 6 pm, we were treated to an entertaining evening with Bhutanese folklore and dances around a lovely bonfire organised by the Far Horizon team. It was only the next day that we truly experienced the colourful Bhutanese festival. Mask dances, unfurling of the Thangkha (scroll painting), processions of the monks, and the entire mood and movements which characterise this festival, are magical and mystical. Continuing beyond sunset, it is a blend of prayers and partying in a common area.

Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan

The sunrise next morning had a whole lot of surprises in store that unfolded in the capital - Thimpu. The two hours drive to Thimpu took us through an enchanting journey upstream along the Paro Chu reaching the confluence of Paro Chu and the Thimpu Chu. Explore the Thimpu bazaar and do invest in a special Bhutanese outfit called Kira, but don’t forget to exercise your bargaining skills here. The entire region has a unique aura surrounding it, be it the Wangdi or Punakha valley.

Undoubtedly, the Drukyul Kingdom (Land of the Thunder Dragon) is a world in itself, a society and culture strong and captivating. The impressions of this Himalayan kingdom still linger on...