India: Manali-Leh "Hell"way

What a journey I have been through…it makes my eighteen-hour Cambodian “Hell on Wheels” experience seem like a walk in the park! After a long day in Manali, and a long evening watching soccer, Hannah and I were picked up by a jeep on a dark street in Old Manali around 2:00 am. The jeep took us to central New Manali, where we waited, waited, waited…finally, around 4:00 am, nine weary travelers packed into a tough, rough white jeep and began our journey north.

Hannah and I were hoping that we would be so exhausted from lack of sleep that we would instantly pass out as soon as we boarded the jeep…not so. The sun quickly began to rise, leaving us in bleary-eyed wonderment as we curled up winding mountain roads through the most fantastic scenery. We chatted it up with our fellow passengers, including a French couple, an American guy, and four young Indian men. Finally, around 8:00 am, we arrived at our first official passport checkpoint (due to the problems in the Kashmir region). I quickly jumped out in search of a toilet, only to be told that it was “Open.” What does that mean? I soon discovered that “open” meant anywhere you could find a nice little private spot in the wide open space to relieve yourself. We eventually got back on the road, and around 10:00 am stopped for a breakfast break. I had a wonderful meal of aloo paratha (potato and flat bread) while our driver took a short nap, had a potty break in the “open,” and thirty minutes later we were back on the road.

At this point, after over twenty-four hours of sleeplessness, I was feeling quite delirious, but I still could not manage to fall asleep…the scenery was stunning and the ride was incredibly bumpy, so no attempts at a nap were very fruitful. I chugged as much water as my body would allow, trying not to be hit with the altitude sickness that is all too common on the Manali-Leh Highway, the world’s second-highest road. Unfortunately, I discovered around 3:00 pm that my camera was missing, and after a thorough search of the jeep, realized that I had left it at our breakfast spot hours before. I was bummed out, angry at myself, but too tired to really care about it.

At our third stop around 4:00 pm, everyone got out of the jeep for lunch. It was then that I realized I had absolutely no appetite. I was freezing cold, in my little ballet flats, gaucho pants, and thin fleece jacket. How was I to know that it is cold in the mountains? After all, I am a beach girl! Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I slowly sipped an apple juice and climbed back into the jeep. The bad news was that we still had a long, long way to go.

At our last checkpoint around 5:00 pm, the driver (who, I remind you, had been driving non-stop over the winding mountain roads for approximately thirteen hours at this point…I spent most of the trip watching his eyes in the rearview mirror to ensure that he did not doze off) called me outside to speak with the patrolmen. Apparently, he had told them about my losing my camera, and after a few minutes of an actual morse-code transmission, they let me know that the camera was safe and sound and waiting for me when I returned. I was ecstatic, and they took down my passport info while I repeatedly told them how much I loved them. Indians are good people, let me tell you!

Finally, we started on our final leg of the journey to Leh. Hearing that we had six hours left was not very comforting to me. I was exhausted, freezing cold, and definitely feeling the effects of the altitude. As darkness began to hug our mountain road, a light snow began to fall, pouring down as we reached Taglang La, the highest point of the road at a staggering 5328 meters! At that point, I was too tired, sickly, cold, and unmotivated to even get out of the jeep to snap photos (oh, yeah, and I did not even have a camera!). The jeep got going again, and around 10:00 pm we rolled into our last stop for dinner.

0ur poor driver was completely knackered, as were we, and even though we just wanted to get there, we knew he needed the rest. I tried to eat some food, but could only manage down a few bites. Finally, around 11:00 pm, we arrived in Leh. As usual, the jeep dropped us off on the far side of town, so after much arguing and hassling with taxi drivers, some people from our jeep and a few from another jeep, six in all, piled into a van driven by a thirteen-year-old with no sense of direction. After driving around town in search of guesthouses for an eternity, I threatened the kid with his life and directed him where to take us. We finally arrived in Changspa, a dark area of town that is a sort of traveler mecca. Hannah and I hopped out, and were followed by an Irish and an English guy, and together we located the nearest guesthouse.

When we arrived at the guesthouse, it took ages to awaken the drunken manager, but finally he put us in our rooms (and I will embarrassingly admit that I was on the verge of tears at that point…I might have thrown a few obscenities his way in my dazed state). I instantly crawled into bed, but was hit by feverish chills that wracked my entire body. I had no sooner dozed off before waking up with hot water in my mouth, knowing that I had about ten seconds to reach the bathroom down the hall. I ran to the door, which was locked, and tried with one hand over my mouth and one hand on the handle to open it, but to no avail. I started screaming for Hannah, but as soon as she awoke, I found the lock at the top of the door, flung it open, and made it to the bathroom just in time. Most of last night was spent with sprints down the cold corridor to the bathroom. As I write this, all I can think is…Was this worth it? I hope Leh proves to be the most fantastic place in the world, because it sure was pure hell getting here….which makes me realize, guess what “Leh” backwards spells?

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