For lack of a travel partner, I decided to brave the journey from Chandigarh to Leh by road, last August. The 36-hour journey started at night. The Volvo rode from Chandigarh towards Manali, and reached at sunrise. My next mission was to find a mini bus that would take me to Ladakh.
As a single girl traveller, the latent fear of the unknown always lurks. But luck at peak tourist season helped (June to September invites most tourists). One call to the hotel desk and I had a side seat to Leh in a van leaving at 2 am that night.
I was escorted by my driver to the Swaraj Mazda. With seven fellow passengers, all of whom were foreign nationals, I was on my way to Leh. The back-breaking, lung-pressing road began to curve. At exactly 3 am, some 20 km out of Manali in the wilderness of nowhere, I shut my eyes in the front seat of the Mazda.
As the sun rose higher, our jaunty jalopy made its way over the arid patches of bald hills, crossing a ravine 3,500 m above sea level. We crossed Rohtangla, the first of the four passes we would have to cross to reach Leh. The Indus river turned more and more tumultuous as we made our way round each peak and passed onto the next, all the while making an equator of our own around the periphery of the Himalayan Zanskar range.
We were now driving through the highest cold desert in the world. Every few kilometres the view changed -- from landslide rocks forming a pointed valley, to the last filling station at Darchu where the sign 'Next Filling Station 365 kms ahead' is a historic landmark. Stopping at makeshift 'banjara' camps around Sarchu, Keylong and Pang, we took fifteen-minute breaks every few hours to visit the compost, open-air toilets that charge a bomb and provide no sanitation. The 'banjara' camps house overnight travellers, giving them little folding beds with thin blankets to brave the midnight subzero chills.
We reached Ladakh's border by 2 pm and entered the barren expanse of Pang. Huge stalactite and stalagmite formations traced their way through the valley and a number of faces, mimicking world wonder rocks like the Grand Canyon, were our escorts on the nearly flat road that led up to Leh. Taglungla Pass was the highest place we first stopped at. At 5,360 m, it's the second highest motorable pass in the world, above snow capped peaks and overlooks valleys running around wildly.
A monastery and a signboard announce it as being a powerful stop. Perhaps regaling in its beauty and also at a grammatical error in 'Unbelievable Is Not It?' has made it one of the most loved signs in the world.